Cincinnati’s basketball season is long over. Heck it’s been over two months now since the Bearcats played their last game. But my millionaire playboy compadres Scott King (Bearcats Blog), Matt Opper (Down The Drive), and I decided to get together and recap the season in the only way we know how; a blogger roundtable.
Per usual, each of us asked a series of questions and all of us answered them. Mind blowing stuff, I know. But to make it a little easier for you to read and more manageable on our end, we split up the roundtable into a three parter:
- A high level overview of the 2013-14 season
- A more focused recap of individual players
- Looking ahead to the future and taking the program to the next level
Part one is below but before we get into that be sure to give Scott a follow on his personal twitter account (@cardscott5) and his blog (@BearcatsBlog) along with Matt (@downthedrive) if you aren’t doing so already. They are must follows if you’re a Cincinnati Bearcat fan, which you better be.
1) Cincinnati won 27 games this year, their most ever under Mick Cronin, but the season ended with a dud with a loss in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament. What’s your take on this season as a whole?
Matt: Raging success. Anyone who calls this year anything but a success is simply searching in vain for a reason to doubt this program and Mick Cronin. 27 wins, the most since 2001-02, the first regular season championship since 2003-04 and Sean Kilpatrick becoming the Bearcats first consensus All American since Steve Logan. All this from a team that was expected to be in rebuilding mode this season. My partner Jeff Gentil wrote a piece in the middle of the winning streak wondering if this was Mick’s best coaching job. In light of the seasons end we can definitively say that it was.
One of the most annoying things about being a fan of a college basketball team is the tendency to lionize the month of march above all else. I get it because the tournament holds such oversize sway over the public conversation about the sport. For the vast majority of people the only time they watch the sport is in March it all makes sense. But at the same time it gets overlooked just how much of a crap shoot March is. Judging the worth of an entire season for a team based on their performance in a single tournament at the end of the season is like judging a person’s mathematical knowledge based on their ability to correctly pick the winning lottery numbers*. The skills required to win enough games to get into the tournament often have very little overlap with the skills and ability required to thrive once the tournament starts. Its a distinction that is lost on the masses, so there are some Bearcats out there who have called this season a failure.
(By the way the lottery is actually a great way to tell who’s good at math. People who are good at math don’t play the lottery)
Scott: It was a great season. Cincinnati won the league. COIN FLIP CHAMPS. The polls are meaningless but they got inside the top 10. In the computer rankings that matter (namely Ken Pom), they were a top 25-30 team all season long. How anyone could look at this season as anything but a success I will not know. The 4 losses in the last 7 games were by 13 points.
It was a frustrating end of the year, but that doesn’t dampen the rest of the season. Only 1 team wins it all. Only 16 make the second weekend. UC had a tough draw. They played a tough team. They came up short. It happens. They didn’t lose like Colorado did. They lost by 4 to a probably underseeded team that made some big plays.
If anyone had doubts that Mick could grow the program, this season should have answered some questions. He cashed in on a big season that no one saw coming. The momentum has to keep going but this was a big step up from last year.
Chris: This team definitely overachieved. Given what they had returning I pegged this team as a 20-22 win squad. As such, 27 wins, an AAC championship, having two players win individual conference awards, and earning a coach of the year award for Mick Cronin definitely should be met with praise. This was an extremely successful season despite a first round loss in the NCAA Tournament which shouldn’t take away that all this team accomplished over the previous four months.
2) What is the main factor that caused UC to fizzle out near the end of the season?
Matt: The fatal inconsistency of Justin Jackson down the stretch, but I think there is a specific reason for that. At the end of the year this team just looked exhausted, and the senior leaders in Sean Kilpatrick and JJ more so than the rest. It could be argued that JJ’s chronic foul trouble down the stretch came from him being tired as much as anything else. Late in the year he started getting called for the cheap lazy reaches and hacks that plagued him for most of his career. For most of the year he stayed away from that stuff, but late in the year those cheap fouls came roaring back at him. But it wasn’t just JJ, it was everyone.
At times this year the Bearcats could find another gear defensively and when they did so they were among the best teams in the country. Think about the way they played against Pittsburgh, you can count on two hands the number of teams who could match that level of play for 5 or 10 minutes spurts and still have a couple fingers left over. Late in the year they had to go to that place a lot, and every time they did they took a little more gas out of the tank. In the Harvard game it seemed like they had nothing left. Those seven straight scoreless possessions late in that game was like they were stealing 20 seconds of rest on offense, not caring if they scored, so they could find some energy from somewhere to play defense at the level needed to keep them in the game.
Part of the reason those guys were so tired is that they offense was so bad that they couldn’t buy SK and JJ rest in games when UC had control. Because control is always tenuous when a 5 minute scoring drought in always lurking around the corner. The game at Temple is a perfect example of that. The Bearcats were in complete control of that game for 35 minutes, but at the end the offense vanished like coke at Jordan Belfort’s house and the game went to the bitter end. A game that was dominated from stem to stern by a JJ less Bearcats squad came down to free throws because the offense took a nap five minutes before the game ended.
In conference play SK averaged 36 minutes a game, If UCF wasn’t in the conference the average would be 38 minutes. It was simply too much for these guys to be fresh for March.
Scott: It was the disappearance of the second scorer. A lot of this had to do with the inefficiency of Justin Jackson from the field. The return games saw pretty much everyone figure him out and he didn’t have great games against any of the great teams. That let teams key in on Kilpatrick and make sure he didn’t beat them. For the most part, he didn’t and neither did UC.
I think losing the second Louisville game was a major confidence hit. We will never hear anything about it, but I think that it put some doubt in the team’s heads. They had a chance to win the league outright, they couldn’t close it and they lost. They didn’t close against UConn twice or against Harvard. Hell, they nearly lost to UCF. That game seemed to shatter the mindset that they were invincible. At least in hindsight.
Chris: Both of you alluded to it and I agree, it was an over-reliance on Sean Kilpatrick to carry the team. Sure most teams have a “go to guy”, UConn with Shabazz Napier, Florida with Scottie Wilbekin, but those teams also have a Ryan Boatright or Patric Young who can shoulder the load in other ways. Cincinnati? They had Justin Jackson and he was riding the bench much of the last few games. Vets like Titus Rubles, Shaq Thomas, and GeLawn Guyn were major disappointments when it came to putting points on the board. Each of them served a roll but I was really disappointed with how inconsistent they were over the course of the season putting the ball in the hoop.
Furthermore I think this need for Kilpatrick to provide most of the scoring was perpetuated by two factors. First was Troy Caupain hitting the proverbial freshman wall two-thirds of the way through the season. He was averaging nearly 7 points per game through the end of January then his production dropped off to under 6 ppg by March. 7 points an outing doesn’t seem like much but the freshman was providing a solid scoring threat from the guard position outside of Kilpatrick and it forced the defense to focus slightly less on 23. Secondly, the fact that Deshaun Morman and Jamaree Strickland didn’t play this year was huge. Who knows how much they would have contributed in their first years but I have to believe they would have alleviated the pressure on Kilpatrick and Jackson, allowing the seniors to be more efficient and at the very least giving them a breather.
3) All of us know that Mick Cronin can coach defense with the best of them but the offense has always seemed to lag behind. It’s caused fans to clamor that he knows as much about a collegiate offense as a feral cat whenever UC scores a measly 45 points. Where do you stand on this issue? Is it that Mick can’t coach an efficient offense or does he not yet have the players to run his system to a T? Or neither?
Matt: I agree with Scott that pace has a lot to do with it. Every year Mick says that he wants to push the tempo and play at a faster pace, and every year UC is in the bottom 100 for adjusted pace. In his 8 years the Bearcats have cracked the top 200 in the country in possessions per 40 minutes exactly once. And that year they ranked 199th. The math on this is legion, it is far better to play fast and be average than it is to play slow and be exceptional. There are exceptions to the rule, like this years Florida team but playing slow imposes limitations on a team that would dissipate by playing at even an average pace.
Besides the pace I have another pet theory. When Mick got the job the Bearcats were just embarking on their Big East journey, fresh off two recruiting cycles that went generally neglected. There was not a ton of talent on the roster and not a lot of talent that was attainable for him at that point. His seat wasn’t hot and he had some time to work at it, but he knew that he had to get the Bearcats back to winning, if he couldn’t recruit the guys who would win in the Big East with skill he had to get guys who would win the Big East by making every game a rock fight. So the likes of Adam Hrycaaniuk, Steve Toyloy, Kelvin Gaines, Biggie McClain,and the immortal Ron Allen flooded the roster. Those guys were very good in a dark alley, and whizzes with a boulder if you happened to have one around, but not so good with a basketball. Once Mick got things stabilized he started to get a higher caliber athlete, but toughness was still a sacrosanct thing. Rashad Bishop, Dion Dixon, Darnell Wilks, JaQuon Parker and especially Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson fit into the toughness and athleticism mold, and Mick had more success riding that to a sweet 16 birth. That season proved to be the high water mark of that approach. The limitations with the approach became obvious last year, and was hammered home again as the Bearcats one man band faltered down the stretch.
Mick recognized the limitations of winning with toughness and athleticism alone far earlier than anyone really gives him credit for. At a certain point a team has to be able to go out and get buckets against a defense that is set to take away your best option. These Bearcats were obviously ill equipped for such an eventuality. He saw the problem coming and responded by going out and getting a whole bunch of guys who are skilled offensively. Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, Jermaine Lawrence, Deshaun Morman and Jamaree Strickland. This coming class is more of the same with Quadri Moore, Coreontae DeBerry and especially Gary Clark being extremely skilled big men. There will be more raw offensive talent on next year’s team than there has been on any of Mick’s previous teams. This influx of talent will help address the issues of the last few seasons, only time will tell if they can solve it.
Scott: There are many, many answers to this question. The biggest one is pace. You aren’t gonna score a ton of points when you play slow, like Cincinnati did, unless you are incredibly efficient, which Cincinnati wasn’t. Compared to past Cincinnati teams, this was one of the best offenses that UC has had. This was the 2011 Bearcats offense pretty much.
Look at the top 10 offenses on Ken Pom. They have a lot of guys who can shoot, Duke, Michigan, Wichita St, Iona, Iowa, Iowa St, Creighton, or they were offensive rebounding monsters like Kentucky. Most of those teams ran too one sided with offense and didn’t have long runs in the tournament. Kentucky, Michigan and Iowa State were the only 3 that made the Sweet 16. Shooters are a must. Cincinnati has no true shooters. Sean Kilpatrick broke records, but he was a volume scorer. If he’s not getting 15 field goal attempts and 10 free throws, he’s not scoring 20 points. He clearly doesn’t have a system like Michigan has. But what’s Kentucky’s system besides having great players?
The major problem with this team, and last year and the year before that and the teams with Vaughn, there are not many scoring options. Justin Jackson going away offensively was the answer to my last question and that rears its head here. He was the second leading scorer. He became someone that you couldn’t depend on and someone who was very inefficient. Titus Rubles was one of the worst shooters to ever wear a Cincinnati uniform. Those are your top 3 scorers. Kilpatrick had a great year but he couldn’t get shots. He couldn’t do it alone.
I’ve said this a thousand times, but Jeff Van Gundy said the difference between the NBA and college is 5 guys in the NBA can score and 2 or 3 can score in college. UC had 1 at the end of the year. Nothing from the point guard, inefficiency from the power forward, inefficiency from the center, inconsistency from the small forward and nothing from the bench. It’s a talent thing. This was a very talented team but their talents didn’t involve being great offensive players. Titus Rubles did everything but score. Justin Jackson was a great defender.
Chris: Up until this season, I was a blowhard when it came to my objection of Mick Cronin’s offensive system (or what I perceived as an offense that lacked a system all together). I couldn’t stand it or even wrap my brain around what it was Mick was trying to get the players to do with the ball in their hands. In my eyes, he was essentially sitting back and letting his guards figure out the defense while the bigs were told to just stand there and crash the bucket if and when one of the guards threw up an unbalanced three.
But this season we witnessed an offense that displayed the ebb and flow of a team that looked like they knew what they were doing. That they had a system by which to score in the half-court rather than relying on transition points. Guards ran along the baseline when they didn’t have the ball in their hands and the forwards routinely jumped up to the key to set blocks. Everybody was moving, fighting to get an open shot. The problem was when that open shot didn’t come or when the passing lanes inside were closed off, Cincinnati didn’t have the offensive-minded players to make something out of nothing. Kilpatrick could do it. Caupain displayed spurts of genius in this regard as well. But outside of them, UC’s scoring was inconsistent at best because there were too few options for the Bearcats to go to when it all went to shit, for lack of a better word. The good news, as Matt mentioned, those players are coming in the form of Quadri Moore and Gary Clark, who appear to be very adept offensive forwards. Plus Caupain and Kevin Johnson should develop as sophomores and Morman looks like an aggressive scoring option on the perimeter. I have to think if it all comes together in the same system we witnessed this past season, Cincinnati could really shine on offense over the next few years.