Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin made sure his team understood that losing a 22-point lead to Nevada in the round of 32 last March is something they will move on from — fast.And they have. As they always do.
“I told them if this is the worst thing in your life, then you’re going to live a great life,’’ Cronin said of the loss to the Wolf Pack when the No. 2 seed Bearcats were bounced out of the tournament. “The sun will come up and we will move on. (Houston coach) Kelvin Sampson and us both had a great season but had horrible endings (Houston lost to Michigan at the buzzer in the round of 32 on a Jordan Poole 3-point shot). It’s not going to be the last in sports. Japan just took one in the World Cup to Belgium. It happens and you move on.’’
The Bearcats (ranked probably too low in my latest Power 36 at No. 35) are still going to be one of the teams to beat in the American Athletic Conference next season and are getting a jump start on that campaign with 10 practices and a foreign trip to Montreal and Ottawa beginning Aug. 4.
Cincinnati is one of those programs that consistently has the “next-man up” mentality and actually practices it.
“We’re a program that builds from within,’’ Cronin said. “We usually have guys on our team that have been groomed to take over. We don’t have the turnover plague that exists in college basketball. We work hard to avoid that. We haven’t taken a fifth-year guy. We haven’t needed to do that. We believe in continuity. It works for us.’’
There seems to be someone else to step into the role as go-to player when others leave either once their eligibility is exhausted like Gary Clark and Kyle Washington or choose to depart early through the NBA draft like Jacob Evans.
Enter Jarron Cumberland, who Cronin is convinced will be either the preseason player of the year in the AAC or possibly the winner of the award by season’s end.
Add in veterans Cane Broome and Justin Jenifer on the perimeter and there is a core group of Bearcats that can lead this team once again to an NCAA tournament berth — their ninth in a row if it happens in 2019.
“Jarron Cumberland is as good as any player in our league,’’ said Cronin of Cumberland, who is the top returning scorer for Cincinnati at 11.5 points a game. “He’s a guy that’s going to average 15 to 20 a game. He’s big time. He’s got a big-time scorers mentality. He can’t be stopped. He’s confident and get really tough baskets for you.’’
Cronin compared the 6-5 rising junior to former Bearcat Sean Kilpatrick, a grinder who was a reliable scorer for Cincinnati and turned himself into a pro.
Cronin also said the Bearcats will be much more athletic next season, even if they aren’t as experienced.
“We’ll run faster, jump higher and be more mobile,’’ he said. “We’ll be even better defensively on the front line. They aren’t as prolific on the low post and may not command the double teams like Gary and Kyle were and that might be the difference.’’
The next names to be familiar with will be returning players: 6-8 junior Tre Scott, 6-9 sophomore Mamoudou Diarra (who redshirted), 6-11 junior Nysier Brooks and 6-9 sophomore Eliel Nsoseme.
“It was laid out to all of them that their time would come,’’ Cronin said.
The backups to Broome and Jenifer will be a pair of 6-5 sophomores Keith Williams and Trevor Moore.
Cronin said it was hard for them to get extended minutes last season, but they will be counted on this season and especially on the trip to Canada to get much-needed reps.“The main thing is we’ve got a lot of guys in new roles,’’ Cronin said. “We’ve got nine returning players and two freshmen (guard Logan Johnson and forward LaQuill Hardnett) and a junior college transfer (guard Rashawn Fredericks) coming in and we expect him to play right away."
Broome and Jenifer will need to show their leadership on the trip and in these practices this summer while Cumberland has to slide into the go-to roll that Cronin is determined will showcase him.
“All of our guys are basically moving up one spot,’’ Cronin said. “We didn’t need this tour last summer but it falls at a great time this year.’’
Cronin said the Bearcats have their best home schedule since he’s been coach, with the arrival of Ohio State for the opener and the debut of the remodeled home Fifth Third Arena. The Bearcats played at Northern Kentucky last season (and will play host to NKU this season as part of a four-year home-and-home deal). UCLA and Xavier will also be coming to Cincinnati. The Bearcats are at Mississippi State and at UNLV as well as play George Mason (Ole Miss-Baylor is the other game) in the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida.