CINCINNATI — First-year University of Cincinnati Bearcats head coach John Brannen needs to make significant changes to a playing style and system that existed for more than a decade during Mick Cronin’s tenure — and he has a limited window in which to do so.
“We’re still building some of those habits,” Brannen said. “Because of that, we don’t have a schematic yet, but hopefully we’ll have a Ph.D. in the system. We have a core group of guys that have done it a certain way for so long. It’s going to take time. I wish we were farther along than we are right now.”
Talk about trial by fire.
Next week, the Bearcats open the regular season at No. 18 Ohio State. The Bearcats also face Tennessee, UNLV and Iowa in the Chicago Legends Classic. The Hawkeyes knocked UC out of last year’s NCAA Tournament in the first round.
Those games were set prior to Brannen taking over at UC. In order to “soften” the slate a bit, Brannen added games against Vermont, Drake and Colgate that weren’t on the schedule when he was hired.
“I think it’s as challenging a non-conference schedule as there is in the country,” Brannen said.
It’s not that Brannen will forgo defense. In fact, a lot of what the Bearcats are working on in practice is aimed at making the game 94 feet, with full-court pressure meant to force opponents into mistakes.
“We’re going to be aggressive in the full court,” Brannen said. “It would be nice if we could force teams into the shot clock. The better defensive teams force the tempo.”
Brannen’s style could open more scoring opportunities for Jarron Cumberland, the reigning American Athletic Conference player of the year. Cumberland, who missed some time during the preseason with a foot issue, averaged 18.8 points and 3.6 assists last season while starting all 35 games.
Cumberland needs 637 points this season to become only the third Bearcats player to reach 2,000 career points, joining Oscar Robertson and Sean Kilpatrick.
Cumberland, who scored 657 points last season, is back at practice this week and just about 100% physically. There are no other significant injuries to speak of heading into Thursday’s exhibition game against Thomas More.
“He’s getting in shape to where he needs to be,” Brannen said, of Cumberland. “He still needs to take the step with some cardio. It’s like Lazarus. Closer to the game, they’re all coming back to life here.”
The Bearcats have four freshmen and four transfers, which could play into Brannen’s favor as he implements a new system that might seem more unfamiliar to players such as Cumberland and Trevon Scott, who played three seasons in Cronin’s defensive-minded style.
That was the impetus for bringing in three graduate transfers, players with experience who could learn and adapt to Brannen’s system more quickly.
“They’re guys who know how to win,” Brannen said.
Chris McNeal, a guard from Tennessee Tech; Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s brother and a guard who came from Oakland University; and 7-foot Spaniard Jaume Sorolla could help expedite that process for Brannen, who is pushing his team hard in practice to get them up to speed, so to speak.
“Coach always talks about playing with pace,” said McNeal. “Players are uncomfortable when the game’s going fast. We need to pressure them and make them uncomfortable. That’s how we practice, so that’s how we’re going to play.”
The only player on this year’s team with a leg up on learning Brannen’s system and the terminology is guard Chris Vogt, who transferred from Northern Kentucky University to rejoin Brannen. For everyone else, the learning curve is steep.
“I think we’re making a lot of strides since the first week of practice,” McNeal said. “Our sense of urgency is very high. I feel like we’re vocal leaders. We have a team full of veteran guys and mature players.”
Brannen led NKU to three straight postseason appearances, including a pair of NCAA Tournament trips in NKU’s first three seasons as a Division I men’s basketball program. He made clear his goal at UC is to get back to a Final Four and win a national title.
The Bearcats are among only six programs to make nine straight NCAA Tournament trips, joining Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga. If they are going to extend that streak this season, the Bearcats players need to adapt quickly to Brannen's style.
Despite being a regular participant in March Madness, the Bearcats haven’t advanced past the second round since 2012. Brannen made it clear upon his hiring that he came to UC with the goal of getting the Bearcats back to the Final Four and contending for national championships.
This isn’t the first time Brannen has been a first-year head coach at a school, but this stage is a little bit bigger.
Brannen said he’s up for the challenge.
“If you don’t have jitters, you’re not ready,” Brannen said. “Anxious is one thing. If I ever stop having jitters before games, I have to get out.”