Ever since Xavier moved to the Big East and UC hit the AAC, we’ve all been hearing Bearcat fans tell us that the AAC is not a mid-major conference. Sure, the AAC has been around for 9 full basketball seasons and finished above 7th in the KenPom conference rankings exactly once, but that doesn’t dissuade their deluded fans from insisting that it’s a power conference and the teams in it should totally be taken seriously. That has been the refrain from across town since they found out the Big East was moving on without them.
That is all going to change, I think. UC, UCF, and Houston are joining the Big 12 next year, per everyone who is paid to report on stuff like that. Now that question for your UC fan friends and co-workers is when to cut bait on the idea that the AAC is a real major conference. Do they start to admit it now? Do they wait until the Bearcats make their official debut in the Big 12? Do they cling to their delusion forever? It’s hard to say. There’s a reason programs wanted to get out of the American and into the Big 12, and that reason is that it’s a big step up.
None of that has anything to do with the product Cincinnati will put on the floor this season. What will is the product they put on the floor last season. They started out okay, pulling a neutral-site win over Illinois and taking Arkansas to brink before going scoreless over the last 2:30 or so to give up the lead and the game. From there, they lost at home to Monmouth and beat a bad Miami (OH) team by one. They went into the Shootout at 7-2 and went 11-13 the rest of the way, at no point looking like anything resembling a tournament team.
Their head coach is Wes Miller, who made his name by leading UNC Greensboro from hot garbage to 2 tournament bids in his last 4 seasons in charge. It’s probably not fair to judge him too much from his first season at UC, as he was trying to just keep the thing above water in the wake of John Brannen’s spectacular self-immolation. In general, his best teams have been defensive machines. They force a lot of turnovers, concede the three-point arc, and have mixed results on the glass. On offense, it’s all about winning the freebie war. They don’t turn the ball over and they contest every shot coming off the rim, but both free throw rates and shooting percentages have generally been abysmal. It remains to be seen if, given the jump from the SoCon to the AAC to the Big 12, Miller can recruit dudes who can both defend and play basketball.
To the best of my knowledge, Wes Miller is not related to Sean Miller in a biologically meaningful way.
Mike Saunders is probably the most notable guy leaving the program. He averaged 7.3/2.0/2.7 last year, on an unspectacular but not unsettling 97.3 ORtg. He was a decent shooter and led the team in assist rate. Big man Abdul Ado started every game but didn’t get big minutes; he put together a 2.4/4.5/0.6 game line, crushed the glass at both ends, and was an excellent defender.
When considering 5 positions for the 33 games the team played, there were 165 (someone check my math) player starts available for members of the UC roster last year. A total of 34 of those departed; the rest return. This is a cohesive squad.
Guard David DeJulius transferred in from Michigan and posted 14.5/2.8/2.6 on high usage and a grim .409/.297/.824 shooting line. The team leaned on him for both scoring and game management, and he generally came good. He was the leading scorer; wing Jeremiah Davenport was the leading rebounder with a game line of 13.4/5.5/0.8. He was a big better shooter than DeJulius, putting up a line of .393/.359/.763 and making 30 more threes.
Mika Adams-Woods led the team in assists, making it a clean sweep of returning leaders in the major statistical categories. He averaged 8.6/2.6/3.1 with a shooting line not fit to print on a family website. He had excellent ball distribution and security numbers and shot well from the line, so it’s probably a shot selection issue. Somebody who did not shoot well from the line was forward John Newman, who averaged 6.9/4.2/1.7 and shot 29-52 (55.8%) from the stripe. He was never more than an afterthought on offense, but he paired his low usage with decent efficiency.
Russian big man Viktor Lahkin rounds out the interesting returnees. He only got about 10 minutes per game, but he averaged 4.2 and 3.5 in that time. His efficiency was undercut by the fact that he turned the ball over like it was covered in poisonous thumbtacks, but he crushed the glass at both ends and shot 57% from inside the arc. He also committed 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which obviously isn’t ideal.
Indiana transfer guard Rob Phinisee averaged 6.5/2.6/2.8 in his four years there, but his ORtg dropped each season, from 96.0 to a nadir of 83.5 last season. He’s a high-volume chucker who put up an eye-watering 38% EFG% last year. He’s a depth option at best.
The same can’t be said for the last two transfers we’ll cover here. Kalu Ezipke is a big-body center from Old Dominion. He was listed at 6’8”, 240 last year there. He has been a reliably excellent rebounder at both ends throughout his career and is a very good defender. Almost half his two-point shots were from the mid-range last year, and he hit them at a more than serviceable 41.5% clip.
Finally, and I’ve buried the lede a bit here, Landers Nolley joins from Memphis. He is a big wing with plus ball skills, but his production dropped a little bit last year. He’s never been super efficient, but he can shoot it a little bit, get to the glass, and make plays with the ball in his hands. If he can get his legs under him, he’ll be a huge weapon for UC.
Tops among the freshmen is four-star guard Daniel Skillings. He’s a 6’6” wing who was ranked just inside (or just outside) the top 100. He’s more of a slasher than a shooter, but his jumper has been progressing both from behind the arc and in terms of a pull-up game. He is versatile defensively, works hard on the glass, and has a wingspan of almost seven feet. The other schools in on him included Albany, Pitt, and Clemson, though he was a late bloomer and covid messed with his recruitment.
The rest of the class consists of a couple of intriguing three-star guys in Josh Reed and Sage Tolentino. Reed is a 6’6” lefty wing who isn’t an explosive athlete. He has an excellent feel for the game and projects as a knockdown shooter from behind the arc. Tolentino was initially an Auburn recruit, but he flipped to UC last year. He has good feel around the rim and is a skilled scorer, and some reports indicate he’s a good jump shooter besides. He’s a good defender who doesn’t get himself into trouble by chasing blocks. He’s not as highly-rated as some other players, but there’s a lot to like about his upside.
We’ve gone through a lot of words to get here, but the bottom line is that the Bearcats are shaking off the doldrums of the Brannen era and showing signs of growing into a nationally relevant program for the first time in a while. It’s hard to believe it has been thirty years since UC made consecutive Sweet 16s, but that’s a fact that I confirmed via Wikipedia. Wes Miller is a highly-rated young coach, but we’ve seen plenty of guys fail to make the jump from the lower ranks to a high-major. This is a roster that has enough pieces on it to make a good run this year and set the foundation for years to come; whether or not that comes to fruition will be a good indicator of how well Miller will adjust to the jump in levels.