Here we are again, X fans. The "Know Your Non-conference Opponent" series always caps with the UC Bearcats because they're always going to be on the schedule and I'm always going to want to beat them. There is a sense in which, regardless of who else is on the schedule, the Crosstown Shootout is still the game that I'm circling in red. Now that we're in the Big East and they aren't, we can look forward to hearing from their fans and munchkin coach about how this is just another game and real conferences have football.
Thanks entirely to Ge'Lawn Guyn, this game is now being played in the cavernous US Bank Arena for at least one more year. I think this is a charade; I miss seeing a packed house of rabid, mostly hateful fans spewing unspeakable bile at the visiting team's players and coaches. It's what makes America great. In spite, or perhaps because of, the proximity of the schools, I never quite get the vibe that the players sincerely dislike each other that I got off of, say, the Dayton game, but this is always a red-letter day for both fan bases. Hopefully we can get out of this one without throwing hands so the Shootout can go back to the home-and-home format that brings out its best.
Mick Cronin is known for two things: bold proclamations in press conferences that never come to fruition, and uglying up basketball. While that first statement is unquestionably derisive, I actually mean the second part as kind of a compliment. His teams generally play at a staggeringly low pace (ignore his annual pre-season overtures towards speeding up) and challenge every aspect of an opponents' preparation. The Bearcats don't always win, but they rarely allow opponents to leave with an easy game behind them.
It starts on defense for UC, where their last four teams have been in the top 50 in efficiency and their last three have been in the top 25. Forcing turnovers isn't a consistent part of their game plan, but challenging shots certainly is. The Bearcats were 9th in the country in EFG% defense last year, including forcing teams into an appalling 42.3% on two-point attempts. They were also 6th in block% and comfortable in the top 100 in 3P% and 3PA%. They also allowed offensive rebounds on fewer than 30% of opponents' misses and somehow did it all while staying in the top 100 in not sending teams to the free-throw line. That little guy knows how to coach defense.
Offense, on the other hand, is not a big feather in the Bearcats' collective cap. I'm guessing this is because Cronin recruits the guys who play his kind of defense and tries to piece together the rest on the fly. Shooting is a consistent weak point for his teams, with EFG%s rarely cracking the top 200 in the nation (last year's team was 274th with an EFG% of 46.2%). Cronin's teams make up for this deficiency in a few ways. First, they generally shoot a lot of three-pointers even though they're barely average as far as 3P% goes. More importantly, his teams usually avoid turnovers very well and get to the offensive glass like maniacs. Those last two components are how a team that can't shoot very well at all can find itself somewhere above serviceable in total offensive efficiency, and that's what UC does.
Injury-prone point guard Cashmere Wright has moved on, taking his 12.7/2.4/3.2 on .395/.361/.802 out the door in his pocket. Wright wasn't afraid to look for his own shot (more than a quarter of the shots taken while he was on the floor were taken by him), but he also assisted more than a quarter of the made buckets his teammates got with him out there. He was a defensive menace, achieving a steal% of 3.3% and grabbing 1.6 steals per game while getting called for only 2.2 fouls per 40 minutes. Lower body dings kept him from ever achieving his full potential, but UC will still miss his playmaking.
Guard JaQuon Parker was also a big part of UC's offense last year. While he didn't lift nearly as much as Wright did (100 3PA v. 202), he was much more accurate, shooting .410/.400/.542 on his way to 10.9/4.8/1.6. Parker also averaged a pair of offensive boards per game, which is not an easy contribution to replace from a 6'3" player. Senegali curbstomper Cheikh Mbodj is also gone. His 5.1/4.7/0.2 should be fairly easy to replace, but his 2.6 blocks per game and 13.4% block% (8th in the nation) probably won't be.
The biggest part of the Bearcat attack returning is wing Sean Kilpatrick. It seems like he's been at the school forever, but he is a senior this season. He put up 17.0/5.2/1.9 on .398/.307/.738 shooting, making up for his relatively inefficient performance from the floor by taking almost 30% of the team's shots when he was out there and getting to the line 4.5 times per game. Kilpatrick shared the load with Wright and Parker last year, but he's going to be the man this season.
Transfer forward Titus Rubles is back for his second season at UC, bringing his 5.9/5.9/2.0 averages on .338/.093/.660 shooting with him. The 6'7", 207-pounder is another dirty work guy for Cronin, and he does a little bit of everything to keep the team ticking over. Also back is 6'8", 213-pound forward Justin Jackson, who averaged 3.8/5.1/1.5 on .418/.091/.512 but was an elite rebounder in his 18.8 minutes per game. Guard Jeremiah Davis III is returning off of redshirt after injuring his hand four games into last season. He will add backcourt depth for UC.
There is a slew of them, so let's get right to it. Jearmaine Lawrence is an ESPN100 forward who measures out at 6'9", 190 and has serious athletic ability. He also has a fairly refined offensive game, being able to catch and shoot from mid-range or beyond the arc. He can rebound and challenge shots well, but his motor is a question, and he's going to need to add bulk and some moves off the bounce. Guard Kevin Johnson is a 6'1", 195-pounder with a shooting guard's game but a point guard's body. He's a great scorer, especially off of the bounce, and has advanced defensive skills to go with it. Finding exactly what position suits him will be his biggest problem early on in college.
Troy Caupain is a 6'3", 180-pound guard who can play and defend both the one and the two. He's a physical player who can attack the rim or shoot when his feet are set, but he is going to need some work to add strength and extend his shooting range out beyond the arc. Lefty DeShaun Morman is a combo guard coming off a year of prep school who is very athletic and can defend both guard positions right now. He is a work in progress on the offensive end, needing to add a jumper and some skills with his weaker hand. Decision-making is also not a strong point for him. Finally, big man Jamaree Strickland is a 6'9", 245-pound center with good footwork who needs to refine his post game and get into better shape.
Once again, Cronin has restocked his roster with athletic defenders who are going to need to improve on the offensive end. He doesn't have a whole lot of returning talent beyond Kilpatrick and Rubles, though it will be interesting to see what Davis III brings to the table now that he's healthy. Expect the Bearcats to play ugly, aggressive basketball. Expect their opponents to leave having not enjoyed the experience of taking them on. If Kilpatrick can provide just enough at the offensive end or someone else steps up, this UC crew will be a tough out in March.