University of Cincinnati men's basketball team starts season in underdog role

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team is replacing three starters from last year, but coach Mick Cronin will waste no time trying to establish an identity for his squad.

Cronin wants the Bearcats to play aggressively and be tough to beat from the start.

With the season opener against Ohio State on Wednesday -- officially christening the completion of the new Fifth Third Arena – those attributes will be especially important. The Big Ten Buckeyes are coming off a 25-6 campaign and are in their second season under coach Chris Holtman.

“I think any winning program at any level, in any sport, has those characteristics -- you have to be hard to beat,” Cronin said Monday. “You can't be easily defeated, which means you have to be hard to score on and you do not turn the ball over, and when the ball is loose, whether it's on the floor or in the air, you compete for it like a championship team. ... It's something you start from Day 1, and we're playing a team with a coach that stands for the exact same thing.”

Cincinnati, which has made the NCAA Tournament each of the past eight seasons, lost starters Gary Clark, Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans from last year’s 31-5 team that won the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They were three of the team’s top four scorers and minute leaders and the three big men in UC’s starting lineup.

Guards Cane Broome (7.9 points per game), Justin Jenifer (4.8 ppg) and Jarron Cumberland (11.5 ppg) are returning. They will be joined by junior forward Trevon Scott and center Nysier Brooks, who played limited roles off the bench last season. But Cronin said it might be unrealistic to expect results right away from a group with so many new roles. Broome and Jenifer are even shifting roles after splitting time at point guard last year.

“When you have a team that everybody is in a different seat on the bus, it's going to take time for them to realize there is a different level of responsibility that goes with that new seat, and I think Ohio State is very similar to us in that regard,” Cronin said. “They lost three guys that played the same amount of minutes as our big three did, so you've got all these guys now that have to play well or their team is not going to win. There's a difference in being on a team and being the reason your team wins. You now bear that responsibility. You can talk all you want about practice, but experience is the only thing that's going to change it. I'm going to get frustrated, but it is what it is.”

Being competitive and opening against Ohio State adds a unique level of focus for the Bearcats this week in practice.

“When you play against a really well-coached, high major team, obviously in the opener it heightens your focus,” Cronin said. “You have to eliminate mistakes early in your practice sessions. Your margin for error is a lot less. The things you eventually have to get to, to beat quality opponents, you've just got to try to get there a lot sooner. But I don't know how realistic it is. I don't know on Nov. 7 how clean either team is going to play, but I do know it's going to make us both (better). They are going to find your weaknesses and that allows you to start your growth process, but obviously you're trying to get a big win.”

Cincinnati hasn’t played a regular-season game against Ohio State since 1921 and has played the Buckeyes on campus only once, in 1920. The Bearcats’ last two wins in the overall series came in the NCAA championship games in 1961 and 1962.

“I'm sure there are people that thought they'd never see it in their lifetime,” Cronin said of Ohio State coming to UC. “I think it's great. I appreciate coach Holtman and their athletic director Gene Smith for what I would say is forward-thinking modern thinking, and the game is a positive.

“… Someone showed me something where coach Holtman said, 'Hey, they are a big-time program,' and the fact he referred to us that way, obviously Ohio State has had a big-time program for a long time. There's no shame in losing just because you're in state. It's not like it's going to kill your recruiting -- there's no gamble. … The people that follow basketball, that buy season tickets for both our schools deserve for us to play.”

The added energy of opening an $87 million renovated, 12,012-seat arena should help the Bearcats, Broome said. A crowd of about 10,000 attended last week’s exhibition against Division II Tusculum, and more than 9,000 season tickets have been purchased for this season.

UC played games at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena last year, and the Bearcats had won their last 26 games at Fifth Third Arena before that.

“We have plenty of fans that want to see what it looks like, so for the first few games we'll have the excitement of the new arena, too, so we have to use that to our advantage,” Broome said. “We've got a lot of guys in new roles, like myself, so just having the support of the crowds, it will help, especially the guys that haven't played a lot, to fuel off the energy of the crowd. That's big time.”

Scott said he loves being in the role of an underdog -- where UC sits Wednesday -- and going into the season as an unranked team. The 6-foot-8 redshirt junior has been with the program going on four years now but is stepping into a starter role for the first time after playing 12.5 minutes per game last year in 36 appearances. Scott averaged 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.

“It motivates me a lot, and some of my teammates as well, just to show people we can get the job done,” Scott said. “We're going to get the job done just like they did but in different ways. They had their way of doing things, and we have our way of doing things. We battled with those guys for two or three years, and just learning from them and being able to apply the things I learned from Gary, Kyle and Jacob, as well, to doing it my own way, it's motivating to come out and play.”

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