Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin likes to call his program “a developmental program,” which means that he takes players who fly under the recruiting radar and over the course of three to five years develops them into solid veterans. This has enabled the Bearcats to make eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
That philosophy will be tested in 2018-19 when he faces the prospect of replacing his three best players from last year’s 31-win season. Cronin has chosen to embrace the situation after a season in which the Bearcats won both the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles behind Gary Clark, Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans, who left after his junior year and was taken in the first round of the draft by the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
“The beauty of college basketball is evolution,” Cronin says. “I always enjoy it when our team is underrated. It’s an opportunity for other guys.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mick Cronin
2017-18 RECORD (AAC): 31-5 (16-2)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Nevada 75-73 in the second round
F Gary Clark (12.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G Jacob Evans (13.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.1 apg)
F Kyle Washington (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
The first order of business will be to figure out how to replace Clark and Washington, who combined last year to average 24.2 points and 14.2 rebounds. The most likely candidates to fill those roles are their backups from last year — juniors Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks. Scott averaged 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game last season while shooting 55.4 percent. Brooks, at 6'11" and 250 pounds, played 9.7 minutes per game and averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds.
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Two other players could make an impact inside. One is Eliel Nsoseme, a 6'9" post player with a nose for rebounds and a penchant for physical play. The other is Mamoudou Diarra, a very raw 6'9" forward who’s still learning the game. Those four players should be able to able to maintain Cincinnati’s reputation as a strong rebounding team, but they lack the offensive skills of Clark and Washington. LaQuill Hardnett, a 6'8" freshman, could help in that regard. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds with 13 double-doubles at Perry Hall High School in Maryland last season.
This is where the Bearcats’ offensive firepower can be found, starting with junior shooting guard Jarron Cumberland, who averaged 11.5 points and 4.0 rebounds last year. Cumberland is an excellent 3-point shooter who’s also a force when he drives to the basket. Senior Cane Broome averaged 7.9 points off the bench last year, his first at Cincinnati. Broome averaged 23.1 points (eighth nationally) at Sacred Heart in 2015-16.
Justin Jenifer returns at point guard. Now a senior, Jenifer started 33 games last season but averaged only 19.6 minutes and 4.8 points per game. He has never been much of an offensive threat.
Rashawn Fredericks, a 6'5" junior college swingman, could step in to fill Evans’ role. Sophomores Trevor Moore and Keith Williams will be counted on to produce more scoring this season. Both shot under 40 percent in limited duty.
After playing home games last year at Northern Kentucky University, the Bearcats will return to Fifth Third Arena, which has undergone an $87 million renovation. They’ll have a different look from the Cincinnati teams of the past two years, with an offense that figures to be more perimeter-oriented.
There are still plenty of big bodies up front, but they’ll have to sharpen their offensive skills if the Bearcats are to approach their third straight 30-win season and make their ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. They’ll open the refurbished arena on Nov. 7 with a premier matchup against Ohio State. The two Ohio powers rarely play each other and haven’t met in Cincinnati since Jan. 3, 1920.
Postseason Prediction: One & Done
AAC Prediction: 3