CINCINNATI -- More than seven months have distanced the University of Cincinnati basketball team from a crushing loss to Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA tournament, and now the team is refreshed with the promise of a new season.
The Bearcats were picked by league coaches to win the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season crown, buoyed by preseason co-player of the year Troy Caupain and preseason first team pick Gary Clark.
After going 22-11 (12-6 American) last season, UC has returned with a No. 25 ranking in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll and 110 votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
For now, coach Mick Cronin said UC -- like everyone else -- is still finding itself.
“It’s the time of year where you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. We’re trying to put in a lot of stuff. But we have a very smart team,” Cronin said.
Here are nine storylines to watch as the season unfolds.
1-How quickly can UC establish a viable frontcourt? The losses of Octavius Ellis, Coreontae DeBerry and Shaq Thomas are deeper than their combined 22.1 points and 15 rebounds per game. Their experience, too, was a valuable part of UC’s identity a year ago. Six-foot-eight junior forward Gary Clark (10.4 points, 8.8 rebounds) returns to anchor the interior and will have help from NC State transfer Kyle Washington and swingman Jacob Evans, but the Bearcats seek production from other post players. Said Cronin: “Quadri (Moore) needs to step up for us or Tre Scott or Nysier Brooks. One of those guys is going to have to give us a solid guy off the bench on the front line. I would say if you ask me what our biggest question mark was, what we’re trying to develop around here, is some depth in that area.”
2-A glut of guards is a good thing for these Bearcats. One of UC’s strengths is a deep guard corps led by senior Caupain (13 points, 4.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds). Expect big things too from sophomore Justin Jenifer, who had a strong offseason and will help alleviate pressure on Caupain by manning the point and allowing the veteran to slide over to the wing. Caupain is excited about those prospects. “(Jenifer is) a tough person to guard on the ball so he creates a lot of help situations. If he gets in the paint and kicks it out, that gives us a better chance for the wing guys to catch the ball downhill and make a play. He’s great at passing.” Senior Kevin Johnson is a player Cronin can rely on, and 6-5 rookie Jarron Cumberland will have opportunities to shine. Cronin said Cumberland “doesn’t have freshman bad habits” or take bad shots.
3-Nobody can get hurt. An injury would cause major headaches for Cronin and his cast of 10 scholarship players. Although the Bearcats have former Sacred Heart guard Cane Broome, he’s is sitting out this season per NCAA transfer rules. Cronin can’t remember having such thin numbers in terms of practice bodies and has had to be cognizant of how he utilizes preseason time. Playing smarter, and not longer, helps. “I’m used to a lot more practice than we’ve really been doing. My goal last week was to get to the Indiana State scrimmage without anybody else getting hurt because we were down to seven at one point,” Cronin said. Jarron Cumberland missed a week with a sprained ankle and Jacob Evans has been dealing with a foot ailment.
4-How will UC handle preseason accolades? The Bearcats are the team to beat in the AAC, just edging out second-place Connecticut, so they enter the season with bulls eyes on their backs. None of the current players know what it’s like to occupy that preseason top perch. The last time UC was picked to win its league was 14 years ago in Conference USA. This year’s recognition features the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll ranking and votes in the preseason Associated Press Top 25. So what’s to become of a group that has thrived as an underdog? Easy, Caupain said. “We’re going to go out and play as if we are the underdogs. That preseason rating was well appreciated. We’re thankful. But we’ve still got to go out there and play,” Caupain said.
5-Will UC regain city bragging rights? Yep, we’re talking about the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout. This year’s rivalry game against Xavier is Jan. 26 at Fifth Third Arena. While the Bearcats lead the series (49-34), the Musketeers have won three straight and seven of the last nine and otherwise have established a recent stronghold. The Musketeers enter the season ranked 7th/8th in the major polls so, if the teams can maintain or improve their standings in the rankings, another Top 25 pairing might be headed to UC’s court in 2017. A rough first half doomed the Bearcats last year and Gary Clark went scoreless in 29 minutes, but this is a new season with new dynamics. And there’s this little bit of trivia, too: Xavier has never won four straight Shootouts.
6-How will UC handle the non-conference? In addition to the Shootout, Cincinnati has multiple opportunities to register quality wins. The first chance comes in Game Three against a highly touted Rhode Island team via the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off on Nov. 19 in Connecticut. The Rams are back in the preseason polls (23rd/AP, 24th/USA Today) for the first time in 18 years and will be looking to validate the new buzz surrounding their program. UC could face top-ranked Duke the next day, Nov. 20, before it travels to Iowa State (24th/AP, Receiving Votes/USA Today) in a Dec. 1 match-up. Shortly after that? A trip to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse to face a Butler team receiving votes in the polls. Then it’s on to the AAC, and a non-conference finale against Xavier. UC can control its destiny by locking up some of those gems.
7-Does last season matter? In short, yes. Caupain said the Bearcats’ gut-wrenching defeat in the conference tournament -- a 104-97 quadruple-overtime loss to UConn -- still resonates with returning players. Ditto for the NCAA tournament heartbreaker doled out by Saint Joseph’s. He said this year’s group will use those experiences as motivation to play better and take care of details. Said Caupain: “We’ve got to finish games. We’ve got to do all the little things because if you remember just a little bit ago -- six, seven months ago -- we was all hanging our heads because we didn’t do the little things, the correct things, to win the game.”
8-What impact can Justin Jenifer have? The 5-foot-10 guard once scored 40 points in a high school game and was brought on to bolster UC’s backcourt but played a limited role as a freshman. Jenifer averaged 2.4 points in 1.3 assists in 8.6 minutes. Nobody is more excited about his sophomore season prospects than Cronin, who has been a big believer in Jenifer since recruiting him. He has great confidence in Jenifer’s ability to up his game. “It’s just a matter of getting him to make better decisions. Getting him in great shape. He’s made a tremendous improvement in his physical condition but Justin Jenifer’s mental adjustment (has been), ‘Make your team win. Make your team play well. You don’t have to ever score.’ And what happens is, you end up going 5-for-7 like he did the other day in our scrimmage,” Cronin said.
9-The sky’s the limit for Troy Caupain. The guard had a remarkable junior season and could be even better this year. His consistency was evident in a 2.7-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio (which ranked 49th nationally) and a team-high scoring average (13 ppg). More offensive aggressiveness could make this a season to remember. Said Cronin: “He’s not coming out of the games until he gets tired or in foul trouble. He’s going to play with Justin Jenifer some, so that will help him as far as not having to bring the ball up all the time.” The co-preseason player of the year distinction ought to make Caupain even hungrier, Cronin said, but Caupain insisted he won’t let it “over-frustrate” him or cramp his style. Asked to identify his excitement level entering the season, Caupain said it was “1,000-out-of-10.” Said Caupain: “I’m ready. We’re ready.”