Key Returners: Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington, Gary Clark, Jarron Cumberland, Justin Jenifer
Key Losses: Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson
Key Newcomers: Cane Broome (Sacred Heart transfer), Keith Williams
Postseason Projection: 3 - 4 seed
Outlook: Despite racking up 30 wins last year - the most in program history - Cincinnati's 2016-17 campaign came to an abrupt halt [again] once the NCAA tournament rolled around. In their Round of 32 tilt against UCLA, Lonzo Ball and the Bruins gashed the Bearcats' defense for 49 points in the 2nd half, sending UC home before the 2nd weekend of the Big Dance for the 5th year in a row. To rub salt on those wounds, the Cincy faithful had to sit back and watch their crosstown rival steal their postseason glory as Xavier bounced 2nd-seeded Arizona to advance to the Elite 8. And with both squads returning the bulk of their core rotations from last year, the Crosstown Shootout will be as juiced up as ever when Cincy goes to visit their arch enemy at the Cintas Center on December 2nd (mark your calendars folks).
Even though saying goodbye to Troy Caupain – the heart and soul of UC hoops for the past 3 years – will no doubt be difficult, Mick Cronin may have found a hidden gem and worthy replacement for Caupain via the transfer wire in Sacred Heart standout Cane Broome. So assuming you're a part of the 99.99% of the U.S population with more important things to do than keep tabs on Northeast Conference (NEC) basketball, odds are you have no idea who Cane Broome is - so why is a dude from Sacred Heart projected to play such a prominent role on a borderline top-10 team?
Despite standing barely 6’0 feet tall and weighing in at 170 pounds [soaking wet], Broome's jitterbug quickness and yo-yo-esque handle make him a nightmare to contain, both in the half-court and out in the open floor. His innate feel for the game is evident in how unpredictable he is with the ball in his hands. When you watch him play, you never know if he's going to pull from deep (if his defender sags too low on a ball screen), or blow by his man with a lethal hesitate-and-go move.
And now, with the luxury of playing alongside a competent supporting cast, Broome's passing ability is the one facet of his game that could really shine this year. His assist numbers over the past two seasons at Sacred Heart don't reflect his true playmaking ability, but with improved talent around him, the lefty Broome should settle in nicely as the Bearcats' primary point guard.
For the exception of Broome taking over for Caupain at the lead guard spot, Cincy’s rotation should look very similar to what we saw a year ago. Broome will be joined on the perimeter by a pair of all-conference caliber wings in Jacob Evans and Jarron Cumberland, both of whom were exceptionally efficient last season. In many ways, Evans and Cumberland’s offensive styles are mirror images of each other - both are 6’5 hybrid guard/wings who can shoot it from deep, but their length and athleticism make them legitimate scoring threats from all three levels on the floor.
Rising junior Justin Jenifer tends to be a forgotten asset in the Bearcat backcourt, but his assist to turnover ratio indicates he’ll be heavily relied upon to run the offense when Broome needs a breather. Another perimeter reinforcement arrives in 4-star freshman Keith Williams, a physical 2-guard who should assert himself as a valuable defensive asset off the bench.
It's no secret that the hallmark of Mick Cronin-coached basketball teams is a combination of defensive toughness and elite rim protection. In each season dating back to 2012-13, Cincy has ranked 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd and 12th nationally in team block rate. And as recent UC opponents have learned the hard way, scoring inside against a Gary Clark led defensive front line is virtually impossible.
Cincinnati's plus-minus statistics, courtesy of hooplens.com, proves that Clark gets nowhere near the national attention that he deserves. Let me put the following jaw-dropping graphic (see below) in context. Last season, when Clark was on the floor, the Bearcats were 0.10 points per possession better on offense (1.16 - 1.06) and 0.15 points per possession better on defense (1.04 - 0.89), which equates to an absurd total points per possession differential of 0.25 (0.15 + 0.10 = 0.25).
For comparison - and this is in no way a knock on Jacob Evans - Cincy was only 0.02 PPP better with Evans on the floor, compared to when he sat.
Back to patrol the paint alongside Clark will be ex-NC State transfer Kyle Washington, who Cronin continues to mold into a defensive weapon. Washington came to UC pegged as more of an offensive minded forward, but his two-way rebounding and shot swatting production was a major boost to an already stout defensive front line. And if Nysier Brooks can figure out how to stay out of foul trouble, Cincy should once again boast one of the nation's best shot-blocking units this year.
The key variable to track this season is how much Cronin showcases his extended matchup zone. But be careful calling it a "zone" around Cronin - per this quote from 2015, the word "matchup zone" is essentially a curse word in his eyes:
“Tough guys don't play zone. "We don't use the M-Z word,'' he laughed. "We do things to keep our big guys inside and still play man to man as much as we can.''
Whatever nomenclature you prefer to use to describe the Bearcats' "non man-to-man defense", the data indicates Cronin played significantly less “zone” last season, relative to the two years prior. UC played zone on 44% of all defensive possessions last year, compared to 63% and 52% in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively, indicating Cronin may be altering his defensive emphasis towards man-to-man.
However, with an undersized and inexperienced Broome likely to play big time minutes this year, Cronin may choose to hide his physical deficiencies by shifting back to more matchup zone, which would go against the trend observed over the past three seasons. A heavier dose of zone would limit mismatch opportunities for opposing guards going up against Broome and ensure the premier shot-blockers (Clark, Washington & Brooks) are always well-positioned near the basket.
Bottom Line: The Bearcats finished just a game behind SMU in the conference standings last season, but with the Mustangs losing some key pieces to graduation and the NBA draft, only Wichita State appears to stand between the Bearcats and an AAC regular season crown. The destiny of this year’s squad rests in their new offensive orchestrator, Cane Broome. If he rises to the challenge and ascends to an all-conference-caliber player, the Bearcats should be in the conversation for a top-3 or 4 seed next spring.