CINCINNATI – With the University of Cincinnati Bearcats trailing 12th-ranked Houston by 12 points with six minutes and 16 seconds remaining on Sunday, head coach Mick Cronin took Jarron Cumberland out of the game. The 20th-ranked Bearcats’ leading scorer sat on the bench as the Cougars rolled to an 85-69 victory.
“We weren’t going to win the game,” Cronin reasoned. “He wasn’t rotating defensively.”
Earlier in the second half of Sunday’s game, many in the crowd of 12,701 in Fifth Third Arena began chanting “You can’t guard him”, in reference to the inability of the Cougars, and of most American Athletic Conference opponents, to cover Cumberland.
Houston did a fairly decent job of slowing down Cumberland early in Sunday’s game, holding him without a field goal for the first 17 minutes of the first half. As he usually does, Cumberland got hot eventually and finished with 20 points.
But when it came down to crunch time knowing the Bearcats had few other options, the Cougars weren’t going to allow Cumberland to single-handedly get the Bearcats back into the game.
As good as the Bearcats are defensively – Sunday aside -- the question on the offensive end is whether they can afford for Cumberland to be a one-man show during the NCAA Tournament. With Cumberland on the bench late in Sunday’s game, UC had four field goals the rest of the game.
Cronin’s concern with a young team is how they would hold up physically through the grind of a 30-game season. He has tried to limited practices. On Sunday, Cronin said he is concerned in particular with Cumberland.
“He’s beat up,” Cronin said.
Cumberland’s fatigue is evident in the numbers.
He went 9 of 25 in a loss at Houston on Feb. 10 and 5-for-18 in a loss at UCF last week and was a combined 10 of 33 in a three-game stretch in February. He was 4 of 11 with three turnovers on Sunday, and only 2 of 5 before he took a seat in the second half as the Cougars pulled away.
The young Bearcats could be running out of steam at the absolute worst time.
“They haven’t had to battle,” said Cronin, who had a senior-laden team last year. “Older veteran guys grind out wins. Young teams really struggle. That’s been my concern all season, can they keep showing up night after night and win.”
While the Bearcats (25-6, 14-4 AAC) are among the best defensive teams in the country, on the offensive side of the floor, they rely almost exclusively on Cumberland, who averages more than 18 points per game. Keith Williams is the only other UC player who averages in double figures.
On Sunday, Cumberland didn’t record his first field goal until three minutes remaining in the first half. He finished the half with 12 points, half of which came from the free throw line and Nysier Brooks added 10 points as the 20th-ranked Bearcats trailed Houston by two at the half. It was then that Cronin said he saw the writing on the wall.
“We blew any chance we had to win that game in the first half,” he said. “We got in a shooting match with a team that shoots better than us. Too many breakdowns defensively. Eventually the dam’s going to break.”
When Houston hit seven straight shots to build a 76-59 lead with 4:22 left. The Bearcats called timeout to stop the bleeding as many in the crowd of 12,701 headed for the exits.
“We had a lot of mistakes defensively,” said UC forward Trevon Scott. “Just not talking. It was mental mistakes. Letting the wrong people shoot.”
Meanwhile, Cougars guard Corey Davis Jr. was virtually unstoppable en route to 31 points.
By the time Sunday’s game tipped off, Houston already had clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the AAC Tournament in Memphis by virtue of a tie-breaker related to AAC opponent head-to-head matchups.
The deciding factor for the Bearcats was their 73-71 loss on Jan. 5 at East Carolina, a team that finished second from the bottom in the 12-team league. The Bearcats were locked into the No. 2 overall seed in the AAC tourney regardless of Sunday’s outcome.
“We just have to keep our heads straight,” said Brooks. “We have a tournament to win.”
The Bearcats went 0-4 against ranked opponents this season. They lost at No. 18 Mississippi State in December, at No. 25 UCF last week, and twice to No. 12 Houston.
That coupled with the loss to ECU might explain why in spite of 25 wins, the Bearcats took until February to crack the top 25 polls. None of that matters now. March is upon us, and the Bearcats have a chance to flip the script on those who don’t believe this team can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“The regular season’s over,” said Cronin. “(Sunday’s loss) only counts for one.”
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Corryville. It was supposed to take time for the Bearcats to recover from the departures of Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. The sting of a second-round loss to Nevada in the NCAA Tournament when UC blew a 22-point lead was expected to linger.
Instead, the Bearcats under Cronin picked up the pieces, and led by Cumberland, won 25 games and fell just short of a second consecutive AAC title. Cronin’s defense-first mentality isn’t always pleasing aesthetically, but it has gotten the job done, particularly in the AAC. It’s a credit to Cronin that UC will return to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight season.
If he’s a deserving coach of the year candidate this season, Cronin has his best chance to prove it. When the Bearcats convene for practice on Monday, he’s calling it an open tryout.
“If you’re going to represent the team that I coach, you’re going to block out and go after the ball,” Cronin said, following Sunday’s loss. “We’ve won a lot of games here because teams don’t get 18 offensive rebounds against us. At 3 O’clock tomorrow, we’ll see who goes to Memphis.”