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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Cincinnati

You guys wouldn’t believe the totally amazing offers Xavier turned down to play this game as scheduled.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Houston
John Brannen, seen here demanding to be taken seriously in a suit he borrowed from his older brother.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow - tomorrow! - the 2020-2021 season finally gets out of the blocks for Xavier. The Muskies will be tipping at noon in a weirdly belated opener to what figures to be a weird season. A week after that, UC will finally tip off against Lipscomb on December 2. On December 6th, the teams will clash on UC’s home court. It will be Xavier’s fifth game of the season and Cinci’s second.

Last season was a transitional one for the Bearcats, and not a particularly smooth one. Xavier fans remember how important it is to land big wins in the non-con when you play in a mid-major league, and UC failed to do that. They dropped their only three KenPom tier A games - including the Shootout - and staggered to a 7-5 record before AAC play. A home loss to Colgate and a neutral-site L to Bowling Green scuttled their resume, and away loss to Tulane (!) early in conference play left them needing the auto bid for a realistic lock. In the end they never got the chance, scrapping to a 20-10 record heading into a conference tournament that never happened.

John Brannen is still digging into the job he took before last season as UC’s head coach. At NKU he established a free-flowing offense that often led to good looks for the Norse. He took the program to the NCAA tournament twice in four years, which is all the more impressive considering those were years 4-7 at the D1 level for NKU. When his defenses were at their best, they forced few turnovers but did not concede easy shots within or beyond the arc. Like his predecessor at Fifth Third, he commits bodies to the offensive glass.

Key departures

I got in trouble with Marquette fans on Twitter for intimating that pretend tough guy Theo John is, in fact, a pretend tough guy, but his credentials pale in comparison to those of four-time National Pretend Tough Guy of the Year Jarron Cumberland. Cumberland posted a solid 15.5/3.8/4.9 game line, but he had a usage rate of 29% and posted an ORtg under 100, which isn’t good. His shooting line of .384/.313/.753 is in keeping with a volume scorer, which is all he was. More than a third of his points came from the line and he often struggled to impact games in a meaningful way.

Joining him on the way out is his cousin Jaevin Cumberland, who average 8.8 PPG and led the team with 64 made threes. He was a bit of a flat-track bully, posting a 104 ORtg but just an 88.5 in KenPom tier A+B games. A bigger loss than both Cumberlands combined is forward Tre Scott, who averaged 11.4/10.5/2.2, crushed the glass at both ends, and was a reliable defender in whatever role the team required of him. UC was not good on the defensive glass last year, and Scott was far and away their leader at that end.

Key returnees

Wing Keith Williams and his 12.6/4.6/1.6 game line return. He has improved as a shooter every season and hit 34% of his three-point attempts last year. He’s not a great rebounder, but he has posted some really good defensive stats in his three years as a Bearcat. Basically the exact opposite is 7’1” center Chris Vogt. He posted a game line of 11.0/5.9/0.8 on a 64.8% EFG%, good for 11th in the nation. Unfortunately, he’s a turnstile in the post, and Brannen couldn’t run him out there without watching him get rinsed in the post by any competent big.

Mika Adams-Woods is a promising young guard who I’m certain I’ll have no trouble growing to hate. He posted 5.0/2.2/1.6 per game as a freshman last year and rolled home 10 on 4-4 shooting in the Shootout. He shot 37% from deep and didn’t suffer a lag in performance in tier A+B games; I’d be surprised if he doesn’t develop into a very good player for UC.

Also keep an eye on Mamoudou Diarra, a 6’9”, 220-pound rising sophomore who did really well on the glass at both ends and shot 15-30 on jump shots in limited run, and Zach Harvey, a former top-50 recruit whose off-court baggage ended up landing him at UC last year. He didn’t make an impact last season, but he has big talent.

Incoming players

Let’s talk about Rapolas Ivanauskas, a 6’10” grad transfer center from Colgate. He went for 13.1/7.6/2.1 per game but shot just 43% from the floor. He was a dreadful 31-117 (26.5%) from deep last year, but 42-97 (43.3%) the year before. Whether or not his eye is in from deep will determine how valuable a piece he is for the Bearcats. He’s a much better defensive rebounder than offensive, and UC desperately needs him to be able to stay on the court and handle that.

Joining Ivanauskas is David DeJulius, a Michigan transfer who has two years of eligibility left and was granted a waiver by the NCAA, because why wouldn’t he be? He’s a 6’0” guard who lives to catch and shoot (36.1% from deep last year) but hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do that much else at this point.

The most promising freshman is probably Tari Eason, a 6’8” or so forward with big athleticism who thrives in the open court. He is a good rebounder at both ends who needs to work on refining his skill moves. On the other end of the freshman big man spectrum is Viktor Lakhin, a 6’9” Russian prospect who had advanced footwork in the post and has good court vision when doubled.

In the backcourt, Mike Saunders is a 6’0” lead guard out of Indianapolis. He’s cat quick and a consistent if not prolific shooter, but he’s going to have to develop his body to compete at the D1 level.

All of those freshmen are three-star guys, and I would be surprised to see UC leaning on any of them by the time the Shootout comes around.

Outlook

Things need to come together for this team. If Keith Williams can be a team leader, Vogt and Ivanauskas can come together into a formidable frontcourt combo, and Adams-Woods and DeJulius can play off of each other, there’s the foundation of a solid mid-major team there. Will they have cobbled that together after 40 minutes of gameplay? It’s hard to imagine they will have. There will be a lot of unimaginable things coming to fruition this season; I suspect one of them will be that the UC game looks better in March than it will in December.