Mick Cronin’s Bearcats School the Shockers

In front of yet another sellout crowd at Fifth Third Arena, the University of Cincinnati faced down the Wichita State Shockers for the second time this season. Those attending (or viewing the nationally televised game on ESPN) saw the Bearcats prevail by a final tally of 72-62. In a quote-unquote rebuilding year, UC is now 21-4 in the middle of February. And they climbed to that mark with recently-departed standouts Troy Caupain, Jr. (Orlando Magic) and Jacob Evans III (Golden State Warriors) cheering along at mid-court.

Arriving, the Shockers were one game above .500; they departed Clifton 12-12. An actual rebuilding year in Wichita, Kansas, few expected them to defeat the Bearcats on their home court…even if Wichita State was riding a four-game winning streak. Against the annoying persistence of UC’s defensive pressure, Gregg Marshall was unable to coach the ball into the hoop.

From the floor, Wichita State launched 71 field goal attempts, making only 19.

Nineteen.

The Shockers were 19 of 71 from the field, “good” for a miserly 26.8%. From three, the Shockers were 9 of 35 for 25.7%.

Mick Cronin’s squad was not exactly on fire from the floor, either. UC shot 13 fewer shots, but were slightly more accurate (20/58 for 34.5%). The difference in scoring output amounted to one more made three and seven more free throws. But this game never felt close.

From the 8:41 mark in the first half forward, UC out-hustled, out-defended, out-coached, and ultimately outscored the Shockers. If defense was a course at the University of Cincinnati, this game was a Ph.D-level lecture on (i) coaching preparation and (ii) player execution.

Professor Mick Cronin alternated between an arms-wide match-up zone and man-to-man defense, seamlessly. Marshall’s Shockers were confused, hapless. UC baited Wichita State into lofting way too many shots from the perimeter and turned the low block into a no-trespassing-zone. While the Shockers grabbed more rebounds off deep heaves, the Bearcats – led by Nysier Brooks’s five blocks – locked them down as soon as they had possession.

Unsurprisingly, Jarron Cumberland led all scorers with a characteristically-Cumberland stat line: 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. He is giving defenders fits this year, especially conference opponents. Keith Williams continues to reliably score, adding 15 points. Cane Broome paced Williams, scoring 12 points after hitting two threes.

Considering UC’s second option, Williams typically finds his way into double figures. The lingering question down the stretch, however, is whether the unpredictable-often-cobbled-together-scoring-combinations from Trevon Scott/Justin Jenifer/Cane Broome/Trevor Moore are enough of a “third option” for UC to outlast teams. As stiff competition approaches, I’d expect scouting reports sharpen to prevent Jarron Cumberland from getting to 25+.

This much is clear – offensively, this is Jarron’s team. He’s the first and second option many games. But can UC win the conference tournament if he continues to account for 40% of the scoring? Likewise, make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament? Jarron Cumberland will largely answer those questions and we’ll all learn that together. This March’s run could prove the most exhilarating. It could, alternatively, be devastating if Cumberland hits a cold spell at the wrong time (i.e., the final six minutes against Houston) and no one steps forward.

Defensively, this is still Mick’s team. They might be statistically less efficient than year’s past, yet Coach Cronin has every single player defending smarter and more aggressively than opponents at critical times. The hallmark of this season’s defense might be best described as a timely obsession with loose balls and frenetic harassment. Today, Mick Cronin took Gregg Marshall to school and gridlocked the Shockers with alternating defensive looks. To win big this year, only a total team effort and timing will due.

The University of Cincinnati faces another test this Thursday evening, as UCF rides a three-game winning streak into Fifth Third Arena. The Knights are 19-5, third place in the American Athletic Conference, and considered a “bubble team” to make the NCAA Tournament. Make no mistake, UCF arrives in search of a marquee road victory to bolster their resume. Another nationally televised game on ESPN2, they’ll be playing for their tournament lives. But they’ll have their hands full as the Bearcats just extended their home winning streak to 14 games and continue to find ways to win.

By Brian Fox

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