- Matt Cox
Key Returners: Cane Broome, Jarron Cumberland
Key Losses: Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington
Key Newcomers: Logan Johnson, Laquill Hardnett, Rashawn Fredericks (JUCO)
Outlook: I hereby declare my refusal to join the Mick Cronin slander brigade that was reignited after the cataclysmic 2nd half meltdown against Nevada in the Round of 32. Sure, it was a collapse of epic proportions and it capped off yet another disappointing ending to the Bearcats postseason (UC has been MIA from the tournament's 2nd weekend for six straight years) - but Cronin's persistent regular season success is bound to manifest into a deep tournament run one of these years.
Not to put a damper on that jolt of optimism, but Cronin will certainly have his work cut out for him moving into 2019. The losses of Kyle Washington, Jacob Evans and perennial winner Gary Clark simply can't be replaced 1-to-1 by any specific player. So, Cronin - being the cerebral basketball coach that he is - is looking to instill a stylistic shift to match that of his returning personnel (per an interview with the Cincinatti Enquirer this summer):
“Losing Gary (Clark) and Kyle (Washington) will change our strategy in a few ways and [the summer trip to Canada] will give us a chance to get experience playing without them," said Cronin. "I expect us to be much more consistent with our full-court pressure defense this season. Our roster will be the fastest group we’ve had in years."
A closer look at the advanced team defense statistics from Synergy reveals Cronin's already got a head start in this transition. According to the chart below, the Bearcats pressed on roughly 25% of all defensive possessions last season (18th most in the country), a 9% uptick from the year prior:
And on those possessions when Cincy did ramp up the pressure, opposing offenses were stymied to the tune of just .681 points per possession, one of the least efficient scoring rates in the country. While it should be noted that UC played a cupcake non-conference schedule last year (which could be skewing that low PPP figure), there's no denying Cronin's ability to design and execute an effective heavy-pressure defensive scheme. He feels that the athletic front court unit of Nysier Brooks, Tre Scott, Eliel Nsoseme and Mamoudou Diarra should fit seamlessly within this vision.
"Nas (Brooks), Tre, Eliel, Mamoudou, those guys are runners, shot-blockers, screeners and finishers," Cronin said. "They're not post-up guys, they're finishers. For this team to win, we need to be a tremendous pressure defense team. Tremendous, not good. We're not gonna be in the top five with field-goal percentage with this team, but we can be in the top five in blocked shots, steals and defense."
Look for rising sophomore wings Keith Williams and Trevor Moore, along with incoming JUCO stud Rashawn Fredericks, to play pivotal roles in upholding the Bearcats' suffocating defense as well.
On the offensive side of the ball, all this talk of playing faster has to be music to the ears of Cane Broome and Jarron Cumberland, the two co-pilots of the UC offense. As a sophomore at Sacred Heart, Broome played more minutes than anyone in America in an up-tempo offense that ranked in the top-50 in possessions per game. Last year, he split PG duties with the steady veteran Justin Jenifer who in many ways is the antithesis of Broome - Jenifer is much more of a 'game manager' and a willing participant to take a back seat to other more potent scoring options. But with the scoring void left behind by Evans, Clark and Washington, Cronin will have no choice but to cut Broome loose this year offensively (this is a good thing!). Though Jenifer will likely retain his starting spot, Broome's role will undoubtedly increase this season.
Bottom Line: If the Bearcats hope to retain their AAC title belt, the revamped roster must embrace the transition to a fundamentally different style than the interior-focused, methodically-paced brand of basketball patented under Cronin in recent years - since Cronin assumed the head coaching helm back in 2006, Cincy has never ranked in the top-200 nationally in possessions per game.
That streak should come to an end this year if Cronin cozies up to the idea of releasing the harness off Broome and letting him orchestrate the offense more freely. Broome's individual playmaking ability is an invaluable asset for a Cincy squad that can go through significant scoring lulls on offense. The half-court offense will still primarily run through Cumberland (as it should), but Broome will have ample opportunities to shine, particularly in the open-floor where he can feast on backpedalling defenders with a full head of steam.