Sometimes in life, it’s better not to ask questions and just appreciate the results. That’s how I feel about this Cincinnati Bearcats basketball season. Everyone has had valid complaints all season, questioning the defensive principles, getting out-rebounded, poor shot selections, odd substitution patterns and rotations. Whatever your criticism was, it was probably warranted. But this whole season is less about the process and more about finding a way to get it done. Don’t worry about how it happened, be thankful that it did happen.
With 13:00 minutes left in Tuesday’s game against USF, Cincinnati trailed 56-43. All hope seemed lost. Bearcats twitter gave up and this team seemed like they would be Not In Tournament.
Then, something happened. Cincinnati went on a magical 36-11 run and ended up winning the game 79-67. The win improved Cincinnati’s record to 19-10 and 12-5 in conference play and ensured that an at-large NCAA Tournament bid was still very much at stake. The win doesn’t move Cincinnati any closer into the field, but a loss would have been the final dagger for a team that is basically hanging by a thread.
Hanging by a thread can be used in multiple ways. Coming into this week, Cincinnati was ESPN Joe Lunardi’s “last team in” in the field of 68. But they are also hanging on by how fragile this roster is. Cincinnati played on Tuesday with just 8 scholarship players and will have no more than 9 for the rest of the season.
That’s because of mid-season transfers of Jay Sorolla and Trevor Moore, two guys who might have not made a major impact, but could have provided valuable minutes to give the starters a breather. Last night, it was revealed that freshman Jeremiah Davenport has knee surgery and is out for the year. And of course, Jarron Cumberland sat out Tuesday with an injury to his heel.
That’s why it’s hard to get so worked up about the process. This team is tough! Maybe not tough in the way we are used to though. Giving up 22 offensive rebounds on Sunday against Houston doesn’t show toughness. But overcoming an NCAA-high 7 overtimes, including 4 in a row, countless transfers, injuries, and close game after close game shows toughness. This team is as battled-tested as any in the country and have proven time and time again they can overcome adversity.
That’s exactly what they did on Tuesday. Down 13, without their star All-American caliber player, they didn’t give up, they didn’t quit. They proved they were mentally tough and dug down deep, knowing what’s at stake, and saved their season.
They also relieved their coach. Unfortunately on Saturday morning, coach John Brannen received the sad news that his father had passed away. Think about this for a second - Cincinnati played a wild and crazy month of February, which included four straight overtime games. They ended that streak with a dramatic win over Wichita State and finally had a week off to breathe before their next game. Instead of using that time to reflect and recover, Brannen spent his final days with his ailing father, with his team supporting him. Typically, it’s the responsibility of the adult in the room to support his student-athletes, but in this case, a bunch of 18-22 year old kids were there to love and support their coach. That has to weigh on everyone. And had to lead to the somewhat-flat performance we saw on Sunday.
That’s what made Tuesday’s win so significant. Brannen admitted after the game that he was struggling and needed to get home to his family. Senior leader Trevon Scott said they felt bad for him and knew they needed the win, not just to save the season but to pick up the coach.
I should point out - guys like Trevon Scott were not recruited by coach Brannen. He graduated last year and could have chosen to graduate and play immediately elsewhere, like many other players did. He stayed and has been much better for it, improving his numbers across the board and on track to be an All-AAC First team player in 2020. So for Scott to show this much passion and care for a guy he didn’t know more than 7 months ago, says a lot about the connections Brannen has made and is a great sign for the future of the program.
People want to get hung up on the struggles of this team and I understand being critical. Everyone is to blame here. Jarron has struggled. Keith has been inconsistent shooting. The bench has been mostly bad. Brannen’s defensive concepts and sometimes substitution patterns don’t make sense. But this team has been through so much and were pieced together by scotch tape over the summer with grad transfers and freshman and returners that don’t necessarily all mesh that well together.
Not saying anyone is immune to criticism, but are we really going to question Brannen’s coaching while he is in mourning? Are we really going to question Jarron’s toughness, when he played all season with various nagging injuries?
Cincinnati has found ways to win all season despite having their worst season in a decade, the NCAA Tournament is in their grasps. Winning three straight games should give Cincinnati their 10th straight NCAA Tournament bid.