CINCINNATI — A crane towers over Cincinnati's on-campus arena, and banner on the side explains the reason why: "Home Won't Be Built In A Day."It's going to take a year for the Bearcats' arena to undergo a major renovation, forcing them to play home games in another state this season. They'll make the half-hour drive across the Ohio River to BB&T Arena on Northern Kentucky University's campus, the biggest adjustment for one of the best teams in coach Mick Cronin's 12 seasons.
"We're used to being in different environments," forward Kyle Washington said. "It will be a change at first, but we'll transition to it."
No matter where they're playing, the Bearcats have enough experience, depth and versatility to pull off another successful season. They return three starters from a team that went 30-6, the second-most wins in program history. They went 16-2 while finishing second to SMU in the American Athletic Conference.
A second-round loss to UCLA ended their seventh straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They haven't made it past the second round since 2011-12, when they lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16. They'll reopen their renovated Fifth Third Arena in 2018 against the Buckeyes.
The biggest challenge this season is transferring their home-court dominance to a totally different court. The Bearcats went 18-0 at Fifth Third last season, their fourth undefeated season at the arena.
Washington and several other Bearcats made the trip to BB&T during the summer to shoot around against Northern Kentucky players and get a feel for the court.
"We wanted to get used to the rims," Washington said. "They're not really that different. It's more getting used to the depth perception."
Cronin had his players wear jerseys instead of practice gear for their annual intrasquad scrimmage at BB&T last weekend, a way of reminding them this is their home court for now. He equated it to coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) getting his Hickory High School team comfortable for the championship game in "Hoosiers" by showing them the arena beforehand.
"You've got to go a little Gene Hackman," Cronin said. "You've got to get them comfortable. In the next few weeks, we'll do what we can go get them comfortable."
Some things to watch with the Bearcats:
Washington (12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds), forward Gary Clark (10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds) and guard Jacob Evans III (13.5 points, 4.2 rebounds) form the core of a versatile team that relies on defense and rebounding, the two mainstays of Cincinnati basketball. Clark is coming off his breakout season. Evans provides a long-range shooting threat. The Bearcats need those three to provide consistently good performances. Sophomore shooting guard Jarron Cumberland is expected to play a bigger role after averaging 8.3 points.
The Bearcats' biggest challenge is replacing point guard Troy Caupain, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 assists per game, along with guard Kevin Johnson, who averaged 7.9 points and was a top perimeter defender. Junior point guard Justin Jenifer averaged 2.8 points and 1.9 assists in 12 minutes per game last season and is in line for a bigger role.
"He knows it's now or never for him," Cronin said. "He's really giving everything he's got to help us. There's been days when he's been our best player in practice."
NEW POINT GUARD
Cane Broome sat out last season after transferring from Sacred Heart, where he averaged 23.1 points. The quick, 6-foot guard is known for his ability to go past defenders and pass the ball. He's an erratic shooter. The Bearcats are hoping to use his speed on defense at the outset.
"I try to get a few steals, get in the passing lanes," Broome said. "With my speed, I try to change the game a little bit. I've got to impact the game some way. I'm not a lights-out shooter."
CRONIN'S MOST BALANCED TEAM
There's so much balance to the Bearcats' lineup that Cronin plans to change his starting lineup regularly, sometimes to match up with the opponent's weaknesses.
"I've told them we will not start the same five guys," Cronin said. "It will be game to game."
Fifth Third Arena held 13,176 fans and provided a formidable home-court advantage, with seats close to the court. BB&T Arena is configured differently and seats 9,400. Cincinnati will offer shuttle service for students to make the trek across the Ohio River for home games. One of the most interesting questions will be how much of an edge BB&T provides.