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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Cincinnati

Xavier’s crosstown rival is at the beginning stages of a rebuild that may yet return the program to a seat at the national table.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Boy am I gonna miss this guy.
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Squeezed into the schedule between the state schools of Ball and Morehead is mid-table mid-major team Cincinnati. Taking on a team of this quality at home right before conference play starts wouldn’t ordinarily be a huge deal for Xavier, but... well, you know why it is. Either that or you’ve found this website by accident.

Despite what Cininnati’s fans are desperate to have you believe in their message boards, they’re a struggling program that doesn’t play in a real conference. Nearly 20 years after leaving Conference USA for the bright lights of the Big East, UC found themselves in a rehydrated version of the same conference, battling it out on backwater internet-only broadcasts against off-brand directional schools from the southeast. Making matters worse, head coach John Brannen was clearly out of his depth even at that level, losing the support of the locker room, the fans, and finally the administration.

To the school’s credit, they pulled the rip cord on this farce fairly early on. After just two seasons at the helm, Brannen was fired for cause. Replacing him is Wes Miller, late of a successful decade at UNC Greensboro, where he took the team from hovering around 300th in the KenPom rankings to making the NCAA tournament twice in his last four seasons. At just 38, he has the chance to establish himself as a mainstay at the school for years to come.

They’ve also bailed out on the American Athletic Conference, trading the lie of “Pow6r” - the “fetch” of the collegiate athletic world - for the established prominence of the Big 12. A presser revealed they had accepted an invite that would go into effect no later than July of 2024, but once these things get started, momentum often moves them along.

All that to say that UC once again has a discernible future. Whether or not that will come into play in just a couple of months when they stop by Cintas is difficult to say.

Key departures

Some turnover is expected when the man in the head seat changes, perhaps more so when he’s taking over a dysfunctional program. Miller has done a decent job holding the roster together at Cincinnati so far.

The biggest loss from a statistical standpoint is wing Keith Williams. He led the team in scoring with a 14.3/4.1/2.5 game line, but he was something of a second banana forced into a starring role. He could defend well and was a decent rebounder, but he didn’t have the skill set to handle the 30% usage rate Brannen placed on him. He’ll be playing at WKU this season.

Freshman forward Tari Eason is also out the door, taking his 7.3/5.9/1.3 per game with him. He was fairly unrefined offensively and had a range about equal to his wingspan, but he was a decent rim protector and was almost as active on the glass as his mother was on Twitter.

Guard Zach Harvey (6.4 PPG, 45.8% from deep) and big man Rapolas Ivanauskas (6.3 and 5.0 per game) both opted in and out over the course of the season. Harvey is now at UCSB via transfer and Ivanauskas is in Lithuania via professional contract. Center Chris Vogt (5.0 and 3.5) appeared in over his head in the AAC despite being 7’1”; we’ll see how the Big Ten treats him now that he has transferred to Wisconsin.

Other than Williams and Eason, the players lost were just depth pieces, though a compelling case could be made that Harvey has serious upside if he can ever get right.

Key returnees

On a team with approximately zero other guys who could score it efficiently, Jeremiah Davenport’s 11.7/5.0/1.7 on a 57.1% EFG% and 107.5 ORtg stands out. He’s a 6’7” who can score it from all over (48-127, 37.8% from deep) and rebounds well enough to hold his own. Guard David DeJulius can’t really shoot (.360/.203/.775 line), but he’s an excellent rebounder for a guard and led the team in assists on his way to a 9.1/4.5/4.2 game line. He has a good assist rate (obviously) but is also extra stingy on ball security with just a 16.1% TO rate.

Guard Mika Adams-Woods is an efficient, low-usage scorer who is just kind of present. There’s nothing particularly wrong or incredible about what he does. He shoots okay but isn’t a huge threat, gets to the line well and converts from there at a high clip, and generally values the ball. This all added up to a 8.6/2.5/2.0 line for the 6’3” sophomore last year on a 105.2 ORtg that was identical to what he posted as a freshman. He’s not a guy who is going to go out and win you a game, but he’ll rarely lose you one, either.

Finally, Mason Madsen is a 6’4” guard who averaged 6.5/3.0/1.1 last year. About three quarters of his shots came from behind the arc, where he shot 32.2%. He never looked overly comfortable playing for Brannen, which makes you wonder why he signed for him. Mike Saunders is 6’0” guard who didn’t do anything of note statistically last year, but he’s super fast and it feels like Wes Miller might find a way to use him.

Incoming players

Miller shored up the frontcourt with big man transfer Abdul Ado out of Mississippi State. He averaged 5.9 and 6.8 in his last season there. He’s 6’11”, 255 and crushes the glass at both ends. Ody Oguama is a 6’9” transfer forward out of Wake out of much the same mold. He only shot 47% from the floor last year despite hanging out mostly within the lane, but he averaged 7.6 and 5.4 and had excellent rebounding rates at both ends of the floor.

Guard John Newman III transferred out of Clemson to UNCG, then left UNCG to follow Miller to UC. He averaged 9 and 4 in an excellent sophomore season, but injuries last year limited his playing time and effectiveness. If he bounces back, he’s a solid piece. He’s more of a slasher than a shooter, but he defends well and doesn’t turn the ball over much.

UNCG’s 7’1” senior center Hayden Koval also followed Miller to UC. He averaged 7 and 4 last year and is a career 34% shooter from behind the arc.

Outlook

There’s no question UC is a team in transition, but the pieces are in place if Miller can get everything put together quickly. Shooting might be an issue, but the team has ball handlers, big men, and some talented wings who might be able to stitch it all together. If Miller can give the team an identity and the unity that was lacking under Brannen, they’ll be moving the right way sooner rather than later. It’s a big ask to jump from the SoCon to the AAC to the Big 12, but Cincinnati’s administration believes Miller is the right man for the job. They believed something similar about John Brannen at one point. We’ll see if they’re any more correct this time.