Despite the loss of three senior starters, Cincinnati appears well fortified to make a run at its seventh straight NCAA Tournament under Mick Cronin.
For a while last spring, it appeared as if Cronin, a Cincinnati native, was prepared to leave his alma mater to become the head coach at UNLV. He made the trip to Vegas to meet with UNLV officials, but after several days of deliberation decided to stay home.
“My love for this school has always been well documented,” Cronin says. “I hope people understand that.”
The Bearcats figure to have a top-25 team as Cronin enters his 11th season at Cincinnati, led by senior point guard Troy Caupain, who had a breakout year last year when he was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference. They also return AAC Defensive Player of the Year Gary Clark and will add Kyle Washington, a transfer from NC State who is set to take the place of Octavius Ellis in the low post.
All American Athletic Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mick Cronin
2015-16 RECORD (AAC): 22–11 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Saint Joseph’s 78–76 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in the American
G Farad Cobb (10.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.5 apg)
C Coreontae DeBerry (6.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
F Octavius Ellis (9.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
F Shaq Thomas (6.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.4 apg)
The 6'9", 230-pound Washington, who averaged 6.8 points and 4.1 rebounds at NC State as a sophomore two years ago, is expected to give the Bearcats a more versatile offensive player in the middle. Unlike Ellis, whose offensive skills were limited away from the basket, Washington has the ability to score facing the basket from 10 to 12 feet. The Bearcats might miss Ellis’ shot-blocking skills, however.
Clark returns for his junior year after averaging 10.4 points and 8.8 rebounds as a sophomore while blocking 49 shots. Although he worked to improve his offensive repertoire last year, he still needs to find other ways to be effective besides backing down defenders in the low post. If he can improve significantly in that area, he could become a dynamic scorer. He’s already a formidable rebounder.
The wild card on the front line is Jacob Evans, who came on strong near the end of his freshman season as Shaq Thomas dealt with injuries. The 6'6" Evans scored 26 points and pulled down nine rebounds in Cincinnati’s two-point loss to Saint Joseph’s in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Cincinnati hopes to get more help from junior forward Quadri Moore, who averaged 2.3 points last year and needs to improve his shot selection. Tre Scott, a 6'8" redshirt freshman forward, is an outstanding leaper known for his offensive rebounding ability. Freshman Nysier Brooks, a 6'10", 235-pound center, is a shot blocker.
Caupain put on a dazzling 37-point display in a four-overtime loss to UConn in the conference tournament last season and emerged as the undisputed team leader. Beyond that, the Bearcats have question marks in the backcourt. Senior Kevin Johnson is one of Cincinnati’s best defensive players, but he’s a streaky shooter who seems to be more effective coming off the bench.
Justin Jenifer, a 5'10" sophomore point guard, was supposed to make it possible for Caupain to play fewer minutes last season, but it didn’t work out that way. Jenifer had trouble adjusting to the Division I level and saw his playing time decrease as the competition intensified. At his best, he’s a clever passer who can push the transition game, but he’s not a polished shooter.
The Bearcats have high hopes for incoming freshman Jarron Cumberland, a 6'5", 215-pound shooting guard from about 50 miles up the road in Wilmington, Ohio. Cumberland, who was runner-up for Ohio Mr. basketball last season, averaged 30 points per game to lead his team to the Division I state semifinals. He could provide Cincinnati with another much-needed perimeter shooting threat.
Kyle Washington is a 6'9", 230-pound transfer from NC State who could make a major impact in his first season. Jarron Cumberland is a 6'5", 215-pound shooting guard who was a 30-point scorer in high school and will be given every chance to start as a freshman. Nysier Brooks is a 6'10", 235-pound inside presence who follows Cincinnati’s tradition of tough, physical big men.
Cincinnati’s strength is its front line, but the Bearcats are thin at the guard position. Beyond Caupain, there’s nothing but question marks. Johnson is solid defensively but lacks consistency on offense. Jenifer needs to cut down on his turnovers, become more of a shooting threat and improve defensively. If Cumberland does not contribute as a freshman, this could be a major weakness for a program that has long struggled to score from the perimeter under Cronin.
Evans, a swingman who can also play guard, should help to provide scoring from the perimeter if Jenifer and Cumberland falter.
Ultimately, though, the Bearcats’ success likely will depend on their defense and rebounding, which have been their staples under Cronin. Cincinnati has ranked among the top 20 nationally in field goal percentage defense and blocks in each of the last four seasons.