How the Baltimore native carved out a niche on the banks of the Ohio River
I was not the biggest fan of Justin Jenifer when Cincinnati first signed him. Mick Cronin was moving away from the big physical point guard like Troy Caupain who used his 6’3” 200 lbs frame to bully other point guards on both ends of the floor. With Jenifer, the Bearcats were getting a 5’10” 175 lbs who was neither quick nor a good jump shooter. What was Cronin doing? Why would he settle for this guy? These questions kept running through my head in the days following his commitment. However, I kept telling myself to wait until he actually plays in a Bearcats uniform before I make any judgments.
Well, I waited and I felt like my worst fears came to fruition during his freshman year.
It was clear that Jenifer has a lot to learn during his freshman year at UC. He was slow on the defensive end and did not provide enough punch on offense to warrant serious minutes as a backup so Troy frequently had to play 30-35 minutes a game. As a fan, my stomach would sink when Jenifer came in because I knew that there were zero points coming from the point guard spot on the floor. Jenifer’s best attributes as an incoming freshman were the things he DIDN’T do. He didn’t turn the ball over and he didn’t take bad shots – you should never recruit a guy solely based on the things he doesn’t do. Jenifer took his lumps during his freshman season, but he never quit and he kept fighting, a staple of Cronin’s players.
In his sophomore year, Jenifer took a solid leap forward in his development gaining more minutes off the bench and showing more confidence orchestrating the offense. I did not find myself worrying about Jenifer when he walked over to the scorer’s table. He was a solid backup point guard on a major D1 roster. But I was still nervous about him becoming the starter. When Cane Broome transferred to Cincinnati, I breathed a sigh of relief because Cronin had seen what I had seen. Jenifer was not the starter of the future and he had to bring the Northeastern Conference Player of the Year to be the starter after Troy Caupain left. I thought Jenifer would eventually transfer from UC because of the Cane Broome signing which could have made him a four year bench player, but he had different plans.
Jenifer’s junior season was a tale of two players. The first player was hesitant about a new guy coming in and taking his job. Cane was the starter at the beginning of the season and Jenifer’s play suffered initially. He made more mistakes and he would look at the bench every time to see if the coach would take him out. Jenifer did not let the game come to him. He wasn’t as comfortable as he was during his sophomore year. After Cane’s turnover numbers rose and the reality of nonexistent bench scoring became apparent, Jenifer won the starting position and his career hit a turning point during the Crosstown Shootout in the 2017-18 season. Xavier did not guard Jenifer beyond the arc because they knew he was not a threat. Musketeers point guard Quentin Goodin stayed at the top of the key and doubled the wings, effectively stagnating the Bearcat offense on multiple occasions. The Bearcats got manhandled in that game, 89-76.
Following the Shootout, Jenifer seemed to relax and not worry about losing minutes to Cane. He realized that Cane’s success is the team’s success and their platoon at the point guard position could carry the Bearcats to greater heights, which brings us to this season.
Simply put, the Cincinnati Bearcats would not be 25-4 this season without Justin Jenifer (or Cane Broome) as their floor general. He’s led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio this year and he has become a deadeye 3-point shooter as well (43.8% via Sports-Reference). He’s hit clutch shots while being one of the best free throw shooters on the team (a treasure on Mick Cronin’s teams). He completely changed his body composition to get stronger and more durable. No one can question his commitment to the program.
Will Justin Jenifer go down as one of the all-time great Bearcats? No. But I’ll always remember Justin Jenifer as the Bearcat who proved the doubters like me wrong and shut all of us up. I’m gonna miss #3 when he leaves Cincinnati, degree in hand.