#17 Cincinnati by Russell Steinberg

Photo: Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The last two times Cincinnati has played basketball, the ending has been excruciating for Bearcats fans. First, it was the quadruple-overtime loss to UConn in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals, helped by a Jalen Adams 60-footer. Then, a two-point loss to St. Joseph’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, when Octavius Ellis’ game-tying dunk came just a tenth of a second too late.

It’s safe to say Cincinnati is eager to get back on the court after a torturous offseason.

When the Bearcats finally do take the court, it won’t be against a high-profile opponent or on a stage near the size of an NCAA Tournament game. It will be at home against Brown, which finished 8-20 last year.

But that doesn’t detract from the buzz around the program.

Troy Caupain returns as the Bearcats’ leading scorer from last year and should be one of the top guards in the American. More than anything, Caupain embodies Cincinnati Bearcat basketball under Mick Cronin. He’s tough. He’s relentless. You’re not always going to like him, but you are going to admire how good he is.

At forward, the 6’7 Gary Clark also brings the trademarked Bearcat toughness. He averaged 10.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last year, recording a double-double on eight occasions. With Ellis graduating, Clark is under a brighter spotlight and must produce.

To help fill the void left by Ellis, NC State transfer Kyle Washington is finally eligible. Though it’s unclear what to expect from him right away, he should start alongside Clark. Washington saw his playing time diminish for the Wolfpack as a sophomore, but still managed several games where he posted gaudy numbers. He sat out last year, per NCAA transfer rules, but has reportedly put on some weight in the meantime. Cincinnati will need Washington desperately to help make up for Ellis’ loss.

Between Caupain, Clark, and Washington, plus increased contributions from Kevin Johnson and Jacob Evans, Cincinnati has enough talent to win the AAC. Evans came to Cincinnati last year as an under-the-radar recruit and contributed inconsistently throughout the season. However, he went into the offseason on a high note, averaging 14 points per game over the Bearcats’ last six games, including a 24-point, nine-rebound performance against St. Joseph’s, when the 6’6 forward made five threes.

Freshman Jarron Cumberland is the Bearcats’ highest-rated recruit since 2013 and brings with him the reputation of a high-volume scorer. If he can contribute right away, he may work his way into the starting lineup and give Cincinnati some needed depth in the backcourt.

The first real test for the Bearcats will come on Nov. 19 when they face a tournament-caliber Rhode Island team in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. A win there likely earns them a game against Duke the next day.

Cincinnati always seems to be one of those teams that’s in the national conversation, then is quickly forgotten in March. The Bearcats have won at least 22 games each of the last six years and have been to the NCAA Tournament each season in that span, but have reached the second weekend just once. This year, Cronin has the team to go further.

How Cincinnati can succeed: Frustrate teams defensively while finding ways to fill the holes on offense

If there’s one thing Cincinnati is always good at, it’s slowing down the game and making it impossible for opponents to score. The Bearcats are among the best in turning basketball into a slow, ugly slugfest, then turning those slugfests into wins. Cincinnati was the 15th-best team in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, according to KenPom, and ranked best in two-point percentage defense and second-best in block percentage. Almost as importantly, they forced opponents to burn nearly 19 seconds of shot clock before settling for a shot — something only nine teams in Division I did better. It’s going to be tough for the Bearcats to replicate last year’s success inside without Ellis, although Clark did have a string of excellent games toward the end of the year that showed off his rebounding prowess and ability to block shots.

This will be especially important given that Caupain and Clark are the only two returning players who are known offensive threats. With Farad Cobb’s graduation, the Bearcats don’t have a knock-down shooter to rely on — Evans made a third of his attempts last year, but that’s as good as it gets. Cumberland supposedly comes in with the range to fill that void, and if he can, Cincinnati goes from limited to versatile on offense.

Then there’s the matter of making up for Ellis’ departure. Clark is about as multidimensional as a 6’7 forward can get, but he will need help from another true big. Ideally, that would be Washington, but it’s always hard to rely on a transfer right away when he hasn’t played competitive basketball in over a year. Assuming Washington can channel his better NC State days, the Bearcats will still need help from Moore or freshmen Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks off the bench. Both come in as unheralded recruits with promise, but remain question marks on a team that will need to find steady contribution off the bench.

How the Bearcats can go home early: The bench is not ready to play a major role

The leaders on this Cincinnati team are obvious and the starting lineup is one of a national contender, especially if either Johnson or Evans can emerge as an improved three-point shooter. But after that, it gets a little cloudy. As of now, it doesn’t appear that the Bearcats will have anyone coming off the bench who averaged double-digit minutes last year or scored more than a basket per game. After Cumberland, the bench is a group of three-star players who either haven’t played a collegiate game or have not quite panned out.

If Moore can take the next step that fans have waited two years to see, Cincinnati could be in much better shape. He’s had his moments over the last two seasons, including a pair of double-digit scoring games early last year, but has never carved out significant and consistent minutes.

In the backcourt, Cronin’s fear is probably that he will have to put too much of a burden on Caupain — though the senior is capable of being a star. As Cumberland figures out the college game, it would help immensely for Jenifer to just provide a steady hand off the bench. He doesn’t need to dazzle, or even score much at all, as long as he can give Caupain and Johnson a quick breather. Jenifer showed discipline handling the ball last year, so he might even be able to run the point to allow Caupain to slide more into a scoring role when needed.

But these are all just possibilities. The reality is that Cincinnati heads into this season needing to sort out roles beyond its top two or three players. If things break right, the Bearcats can be a second-weekend team. If not, Cronin and company might be looking at another quick exit in March.