Through two seasons in the recently created American Athletic Conference, it’s been so far so good for the No. 23 Cincinnati Bearcats.
After finishing first in the conference with a 15-3 record in 2013 and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati went 13-5 in The American last season, claiming third while advancing to the Round of 32. Now, with a 8-1 start and matchups with only four ranked teams from this point in, things are looking very good for Mick Cronin and his team.
Cronin enters his 10th-year as the head coach for the Bearcats as he’s helped his group reach the big dance in five consecutive seasons after failing to do so from 2006-10. Back-to-back wins over Nebraska and George Washington, two possible tournament teams were big for Cincinnati’s confidence. The lone blemish is a 78-76 loss to Butler last Wednesday. In that game, the Bearcats blew a lead with less than five minutes to play and surrendered the game-winning bucket with a tenth of second remaining on the clock.
This is a very seasoned group, as the two top scorers, forward Octavius Ellis (11 PPG) and guard Farad Cobb (10.9 PPG), are both seniors. Four of the next five highest-scoring Bearcats are all upperclassmen. The two freshmen on the roster both see playing time, with forward Jacob Evans III leading the tandem with 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds while 5’10” point guard Justin Jenifer is averaging 4.8 points per night.
Outside of Ellis and Cobb, the team’s two most mature and legitimate leaders, a couple of guys have really stuck out, especially as of late. Sophomore Gary Clark is the youngest core player. The 6’7″ starting forward is second on the team in minutes (26.6), behind only guard Troy Caupain, while his 9.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game illustrate his broad skill set.
Clark has 22 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks just over his last two games against Butler and Morgan State. His size gives Cincinnati an edge on the boards every night, with Ellis and senior forward Shaq Thomas doing the dirty work. Thomas averages 8.3 points per game and is shooting above 50 percent.
One area that the Bearcats say they need to fix is early in games and halves. They allowed Morgan State (2-6) to rally back to make it 56-40 early in the second half and Cronin wants to see his defense play tougher in key stretches.
“Coach has been telling us how we’ve been kind of going with it,” Clark said via the Associated Press. “We’ve got to play more assertive, more aggressive, more as a team defense. Those things come from being mentally tough. We’ve got to fix those areas.”
Senior center Coreontae DeBerry and junior guard Kevin Johnson have also been nice pieces off the bench for Cornin. DeBerry has been efficient with 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game while Johnson is the top guy off the bench with 21.6 minutes per night, adding 7.8 points per game.
This is a deep Bearcat group that has size and speed in its starting five lineup and on its bench. Evans is perhaps the most intriguing player who should push for more playing time, as he’s recorded double digits in four games including a 16-point performance against Butler two games ago. He’s currently battling a left foot injury but should be back soon.
In the AAC, Cincinnati is the frontrunner to win the conference title. And until further notice, it will continue to stay that way. The Bearcats have a huge test ahead on Saturday on the road against No. 12 Xavier, one that should only strengthen their growing reputation.