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The Craziness of Cincinnati Men’s Basketball Winning the AAC

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John Brannen is one of two first year coaches to lead his team to a first place regular season finish in 2020

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After a rocky start to the 2019-20 men’s basketball season, the Cincinnati Bearcats finished the regular season with a 20-10 record, 13-5 in American Athletic Conference play which earned them a share of the conference championship. They also earned the #1 seed in the conference tournament, due to multiple tiebreakers.

Not all championships are created equal. Two years ago, Cincinnati was the outright champions led by Gary Clark and Jacob Evans. This year, the team never quite reached the same regular season highs as the 2018 team. And that’s what makes this team so special.

The Bad Losses

It’s been a long time since Cincinnati lost multiple bad games and definitely a while since they lost a bad non-conference game.

When fans looked at the bracket and teams for the Paradise Jam event in November, most people laughed and dismissed the tournament as three easy wins for the Bearcats. There was absolutely nothing easy about this event and they lost the second game, 91-84 to Bowling Green, after winning the opener 66-65 against Illinois State. Without Jarron Cumberland (injured) they won the third and final game in overtime, 81-77 against Valparaiso.

The Bowling Green loss became the first of four losses that are now known as quadrant 3 losses.

Quad 3 loss #2 came at home against Colgate in a play that everyone remembers. Jarron Cumberland heaved a full court shot with 9 seconds to go and his cousin, Jaevin, committed a nonsensical foul that sent Colgate to the line to ice the game.

There were two tough losses in conference play, with Cincinnati losing the second AAC game of the season against Tulane. Tulane finished the year 4-14 in conference play and in last place. The second loss came at home to UCF and was the fourth consecutive overtime game played. UCF became just the third team to beat Cincinnati at Fifth Third Arena in conference play since 2017.

The NET rankings range for quad 3 losses goes like this - 76-160 at home (Colgate is 115 and UCF is 124), 101-200 neutral (Bowling Green is 160), and 136-240 on road (Tulane is 169).

Let’s simplify this - Bearcats lost to Colgate (AT HOME) and won the American Athletic Conference. What a turnaround! But after that game, who would have thought this team would even finish over .500?

Roster turnover

The amount of roster turnover this team has endured is unlike anyone else in college basketball over this time.

Of the 13 scholarship players from 2018-19, only 6 remained on scholarship for 2019-20 and by the end of the season, only 4 of them were active.

  • Graduates - Cane Broome and Justin Jenifer
  • Off-season transfers - Nysier Brooks, Logan Johnson, Laquil Hardnett, Rashawn Fredricks, Eliel Nsoseme, Samari Curtis*
  • The returnees - seniors Jarron Cumberland and Trevon Scott, Keith Williams, and Mamoudou Diarra
  • New additions via transfer - Jaevin Cumberland, Chris Vogt, Chris McNeal, Jaume Sorolla,
  • New additions via freshman - Zach Harvey, Jeremiah Davenport, Mika Adams-Woods
  • Mid-season transfers - Trevor Moore, Jaume Sorolla

Cincinnati lost a LOT since the beginning of last year. John Brannen deserves a ton of credit for piecing together the 2019-20 team with scotch tape and glue. He came into the season thinking he had only 6 returnees, including Prince Gilliam Toyambi, who was diagnosed with a heart condition and was not medically cleared. And Trevor Moore left the team before the end of November.

Brannen had to get his 4 returnees to learn how to play in a new system with 4 transfers and 3 freshman. This became more difficult when one of the transfers, Sorolla, decided to leave the team in February, leaving Cincinnati even more short-handed than they already were.

Bearcats’ coaches managed to sign 3 freshman. Prior to the coaching change, only one freshman was scheduled to join the team (Samari Curtis). Once the transition took place, Curtis re-opened his recruitment and Mr. Ohio basketball chose to play for Nebraska, instead of Cincinnati (note - he has already transferred out of Nebraska).

Injuries

In addition to all of the above, Jarron Cumberland has been injured pretty much all year. He got hurt over the summer and the injuries continually lingered. He hurt himself further during Paradise Jam and missed the USF game last week due to a heal injury.

Despite being less than 100%, Cumberland was able to make plays and was named First team All-AAC on Tuesday, but it was obvious watching him all season that he was never healthy.

Freshman Jeremiah Davenport played in just 18 games off the bench and won’t play again in 2020 due to injury.

Zach Harvey played 26 games, but got off to a slow start as he also was recovering from an injury over the summer that limited his production early on.


Cincinnati Bearcats are AAC Champions in 2020 despite a coaching change, after 13 years. Despite a ridiculous amount of roster turnover and overcoming numerous injuries. Cincinnati is as battled-tested as anyone with 7 overtimes games, including an NCAA record 4 consecutive in February. There were crazy second half (or late second half) comebacks against Houston, Memphis, USF, Temple and others. The players and coaches had to deal with coach Brannen’s father being sick and sadly passing away 24 hours before the road game at Houston.

No team in 2020 has battled more adversity and had more obstacles to overcome. This team is extremely special.

Not to say that John Brannen is excused from criticism because he isn’t. He made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I excuse many of them due to the build of this team. I cannot wait to see what happens next season when Brannen starts to bring in his recruits, and all of the scholarships are accounted for and the team has actual depth.

Maybe Cincinnati will make the NCAA Tournament. Maybe they won’t. But either way, I stand and applaud this pieced together team for their efforts and dedication to Cincinnati this season and appreciate how hard they played.

Regardless of what happens next, this team, maybe more than any over the last 9 years, has a special place in my heart.