A Most Interesting Year (of sports)

On January 14, 2003, Marvin Lewis was hired as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. At that time, the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team was led by Bob Huggins who would be replaced by Mick Cronin, a few years after, but the Bearcats basketball team enjoyed some years of coaching stability. Both of these teams, coupled with the Reds, embark their 2019 campaigns with new leaders at the helm making this year one of the most interesting in the city’s sports history.

David Bell has led the Reds almost halfway through the 2019 with mostly positive results. Sure, they are not above the vaunted .500-mark, but that would be lofty to expect given the team’s consistent failures over the last five years. He has implemented ideas scorned by his predecessors and had to galvanize a tumultuous roster, in the process. Say what you will about their apparent cohesion, right now, but the Reds have a number of expiring contracts (roughly $65 million is coming off the books, this coming offseason), big personalities (like Yasiel Puig), and players who could have been hurt by the team’s rumored movements from this past offseason (Tucker Barnhart). None of that has boiled over, though, and Bell deserves a lot of credit for that.

So I wonder, how the new coaches for the Bengals and Bearcats basketball teams will fair?

Zac Taylor has been handed multiple tests before even heading up his first training camp. His first round pick and, given the Bengals’ continued abstinence from spending in free agency, best acquisition of the offseason, Jonah Williams, was confirmed out for the season. Williams requiring surgery to repair a torn labrum underscored the lack of aggression in improving a roster that won six games last year. 

Their biggest weaknesses were at linebacker and offensive line and their solutions were to draft help. One of the aspects of that help will have to wait until 2020 to make an impact and the other, with all due respect to Germaine Pratt’s perceived talent at linebacker, was a third round draft pick. 

Due to the lack of roster turnover, the Bengals’ brass made it clear that coaching was to blame for the team’s demise. So, Taylor will be evaluated from the get-go as change will come schematically, if it comes at all.

A very different situation led to the hiring of John Brannen. The Bearcats fizzled out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, yet again, last season, but they weren’t exactly bad. In fact, many had high hopes for what 2019 could become with returning players and an experienced coach, in Mick Cronin. Then UCLA came calling for Cronin and everything changed. He went west, his players and recruits scattered, and Brannen was left with what appeared to be a skeleton crew. 

Then Jarron Cumberland announced he’d be returning for his senior season and things changed. Suddenly, because Cumberland is returning, transfers perked up at the idea of going to Cincinnati. Brannen has since gotten Cumberland’s cousin Jaevin, an experienced point guard named Chris McNeal, and a top-50/four-star recruit in Zach Harvey.

Even with the roster turnover, all eyes will be on Brannen and how he coaches this team. Many fans were vexed by Cronin’s style throughout his tenure. Reports say Brannen is completely opposite, focusing more on offense than defense. He has said they will be a faster team, aiming at increasing the amount of possessions they have in a game. Words are far different than actions, of course, but there is quite a bit of buzz around what will be going on inside New Fifth-Third in it’s second season.

Predictions, bad guesses, and premonitions aside, there is a lot of intrigue at what will be. Both the Bengals and Bearcats have enjoyed lots of continuity in coaching, over the past 16 years, but there is a lot of anticipation for this coming season which will offer lots of newness in the Queen City. Just ask Reds fans as they are still interested in where there team is, halfway into the baseball season. Pretty much every Reds fan could not have said that last year.

Cincinnati Sports Fandom, Not for the Faint of Heart

What is it about Cincinnati sports?

I was born here, or more specifically, I was born in Hamilton. Ever since I comprehended sports I have called myself a fan of Cincinnati sports. I was a year old when the Reds completed their wire-to-wire run in 1990. I can’t even, really, claim that because, ya know, I was a baby.

I have known nothing but pain as a fan of the Queen City’s sports teams. You joke, you say melodramatic, but man, when sports is this close to your soul, you don’t just shrug this off.

Friday night’s ridiculous 12-11 loss by the Cincinnati Reds to the San Francisco Giants is a microcosm of what is Cincinnati sports fandom. Some city’s fans may say they have it worse, and sure, maybe Cleveland fans have an argument. However, as a city, they have a professional championship in the last 28 years.

Friday night was supposed to be a celebration of a talent the Reds have been expecting for four years. Nick Senzel debuted. With him came the thought of a jolt to the team, maybe an awakening. For a few innings, it felt that way. Then reality set in.

In 2012, the Cincinnati Reds were good. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. In a strange twist of fate, the National League divisional round playoffs would be played in a manner where the lower seed would get the first two games at home with the higher seed getting the last three. The Reds won the first two in San Francisco, setting up a series clincher at Great American Ballpark in game three. Then reality set in.

It doesn’t even have to be the Reds, look at the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team, in 2018. A two-seed in the tournament, they looked poised for a run. In the second round, they built a 20-point lead on Nevada, leading fans to begin figuring out Final Four paths. Then reality set in.

Probably the worst of all, in 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals had a Super Bowl contending team. You can count on one hand the number of teams you could describe that way, who have played in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, 2005 looked like the year. Carson Palmer was an all-pro quarterback, the defense was stellar, there were no holes in the team. Then Kimo Von Oelhoffen and reality set in.

Cincinnati sports fans can’t have nice things.

Friday was another reminder. You finally get to see the Reds bring their top prospect to the big leagues. A signal that the next phase, if not the final one, of the rebuild is in full effect. You build a crazy 8-0 lead early in the game. You finish the night now six games under .500. Reality set in.

When the Reds, Bengals, or Bearcats win a championship, it will truly be something to behold. I am not sure of how my mental state will be. Until then, I will grapple with the reality of being a Cincinnati sports fan.

March College Basketball

March is here. That most wondrous, glorious time in which both the NCAA Tournament and baseball’s Opening Day both happen. This post I’m focusing on the former. It’s been a mixed bag of a season for our area teams. Let’s take a look at where they stand, relative to the tournament.

All records are as of March 4th, 2019

 

The Shoe-ins

 

Kentucky Wildcats (24-5) – John Calipari has these Cats currently projected to be a 2 seed in the dance. Considering everyone outside the bluegrass basically wrote them off after they began the season getting smashed by Duke, Kentucky just proves that losses in November mean very little in March. Keldon Johnson figures to be the highest draft pick from this squad, but this may be one of the most cohesive teams Coach Cal has ever put together. They defend like nobody’s business. KenPom has them rated top-10 (#9) in adjusted defense. They’ve also got Tyler Herro, whose last name says it all. They could very well be a 1 seed with a SEC Tournament victory.

 

Cincinnati Bearcats (25-4) – Yeah, that record is the exact same as Kentucky. Sure, they’ve had different roads to get to where they are, but considering this is technically a rebuilding year, that is amazing. They lost the best player the program has seen since Kenyon Martin, in Gary Clark, another NBA-caliber player in Jacob Evans, and a strong post presence in Kyle Washington. They’ve followed that up by producing the favorite to win conference player of the year, in Jaron Cumberland, ad sticking to the top of the conference standings. Mick Cronin has truly done a great job with his team slotted in as a 7 seed with a possibility, if they win the American Athletic Conference Tournament, of a 6 seed. Like the Wildcats, the Bearcats are a well-knit unit of a team. Mick has these guys rolling like a family who is fighting for each other. They could be a sneaky pick to make it out of the first weekend in the tournament, though I do not expect them to in order for me to be happy with their season.

 

The Bubblers

 

Dayton Flyers (19-10) – The Flyers have had an up-and-down year and may need to just flat out win their conference tourney to make the big dance. Their recent OT loss to Rhode Island at UD Arena has emphasized their desperation. They came really close to signature, non-conference wins in the early season, but couldn’t finish them off. They would have been in a better position had they beaten Virginia Commonwealth once. The NET rankings, the new standard for the tournament, currently has them at 74. Making the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals could sneak them in, but Anthony Grant’s side may have their backs against the wall for an at-large bid.

 

Xavier Musketeers (16-13) – It is an absolute shock that they are in this conversation, but here we are. A few weeks ago they were left for dead. A truly rough January, where they won just two games in seven, had them in dead last for the Big East. Travis Steele was being seen as a bust…in his first year, but whatevs…and then things change. Naji Marshall morphs into the player he was expected to be, coming into the year, and has taken over the Trevon Blueitt role of putting the team on his back when they are in need of a basket. After a loss to DePaul on February 9th, the Musketeers got to work. They beat Creighton in OT, smashed Providence on the road, and then loudly proclaimed their comeback by soundly beating Villanova by a dozen. Now it feels like, if they can finish strong against Butler and St. Johns, followed by a deep Big East tournament run, they could steal an at-large bid. Like Dayton, they may have their backs to the wall and need a Big East Conference tournament title to get in. Unlike Dayton, three weeks ago, this seemed as farfetched as the existence of aliens. Yet, here we are.

 

You must be a Conference Tournament Title Winner to ride the ride

 

Northern Kentucky Norse (23-8) – The Norse hit a speed bump on February 23 when Cleveland State, on NKU’s senior night, left Highland Heights with a win. The second-to-the-bottom Cleveland State Vikings snapped the Norse’s 20-game home winning streak and threw water on any argument they had at an at-large bid, should they not win the Horizon League Tournament. Now Drew McDonald is a special player and broke the school record for most points, but he will need to lead the Norse to a tourney title in order to dance.

 

Wright State Raiders (19-12) – Like the Norse, they split the regular season championship for the Horizon League. Unlike NKU, Wright State never had a whisper of an at-large bid. Cleveland State help them split the regular season with the rival Norse, but now the Raiders need to win the Horizon League tournament to make it in. Led by Sophomore Loudon Love (15 ppg), Wright State’s run to a conference title starts tomorrow night at the Nutter Center against IUPUI.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, let’s enjoy our area teams finishing up their respective seasons!

This is Mick’s Best Coaching Job

I’ve been busy, recently, with the Locked on Reds podcast and doing a slight bit of writing for GetSportsInfo.com, so I haven’t been able to keep up with the blog like I would want to, but now I’m back, and I’ve got a thought burning in my mind today that I’ll flesh out. I don’t care if you agree with it.

This year, Mick Cronin is turning in his best coaching performance of his career.

Now, you’re going to immediately point to last year when he led a Bearcats team to a two-seed. I will tell you to look closer. While he coached and help develop these guys, he was helped by tremendous performances by Jordan Evans, Kevin Washington, and one of the Mount Rushmore of Bearcat basketball players, Gary Clark. All three of those guys are no longer on campus. Two of them are in the NBA. Cincinnati has followed up the loss of three amazing, cornerstone players by going 18-3 in the lead-up to the month of February.

Three letters will keep this team from a high seed in the NCAA tournament, this year, in ECU. That loss will blemish the number next to “Cincinnati” in your March brackets. Make no mistake about it, it does not blemish Mick’s job.

I get it. There are those who every time the Bearcats take an L, they want Mick outta here. They don’t like him, for whatever reason. 2019 is a season that, when we are at the end of it, I do not think you can be critical of Mick, anymore, and in fact you’ve got to give him praise. 

This year’s team is not his typical blueprint. KenPom has Cincinnati as the 27th rated adjusted offense and the 36th adjusted defense. How many times has that happened in the Cronin Era? Twice, in 2006 and 2009. In 2006 they were 21-13 while 2009 saw an 18-14 record. I do not think it is a stretch to say this year’s team will have a better record than either one of those.

Plus, you look at the individual performers on this team, and Mick’s work comes into full view. He can give the ball to Jaron Cumberland when he needs a bucket…but who else? Cane Broom has not lived up to the billing. Tre Scott, while playing decent, as of late, has not filled the hole in the post. His key performers have been dudes who have come out of nowhere, and that hearkens back to his coaching job.

They have 10 games remaining, with no real cupcake games to speak of. They still play Houston, twice, who is right there with them at the top of the conference. If they go 8-2 the rest of the way, they will end the regular season with the same loss total as they had last year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see that. Make sure you’re tuned to Mick and the Bearcats the rest of the way. This is his greatest coaching performance and they are one of the most interesting college basketball teams for 2019.

College Basketball: The Opening of New Fifth-Third Arena

Wednesday night was awesome. The Cincinnati Bearcats reopened a pristine, beautiful arena that will be a major home field advantage, moving forward, and we witnessed the beginning of an intriguing career in Logan Johnson.

Sure, the Bearcats lost the game, but I’m not super worried about that. This was an emotional game. The re-opening of home. The start of the post-Gary Clark, post-Jacob Evans, post-Kyle Washington era. The first time Ohio State has played in Cincinnati since before the Great Depression (1920). All of those are narratives, sure, and it’s up to the players to tune that out, but c’mon. You’d have to be braindead to ignore all that. So, yeah, this was always going to be a tumultuous matchup.

I get it, they shot poorly. Scored just 22 points in the first 25 minutes of the game, had sub-20% shooting percentage, all that. That is the sort of thing that isn’t going to linger. Now, are they going to shoot 60% in a game? Probably not. But they wont consistently shoot as bad as they did in the opener.

Part of the problem in the first half was Jaron Cumberland, one of the expected leaders of this team, did not score. Can Broom made like one shot. Tre Scott had zero dunks. If you would have told me that before the game, I’d have said they’d lose by 30. But they didn’t. The defense is just as Mick as it’s always been under Cronin. They kept the lane clean, for the most part, and were beaten by some good shots from the Buckeyes. There were no easy points given up, though. 

Oh, and yeah it took me a bit to get to a point in the opening graph, but welcome to Cincinnati, Logan Johnson. This kid is going to be fun to watch. Yeah, I know you just looked up his stat line and went cross-eyed, because there wasn’t much to talk about. So why am I happy? His intensity. Kid was manning up with whoever was wearing red. He disrupted passes, he got the crowd into the game when the Bearcats trailed by 14. It was his first game. Sign me up for a number zero jersey.

But the biggest point of the night was Fifth-Third. The place is absolutely fantastic. I got to check it out before last Saturday’s football game, and it is completely and utterly different from the way it was just two years ago. You would not know you were in the same building. As the team grows, this place will be rocking and will be as good, or better, that SMU or Houston for toughest place in The American to play.

Bearcats basketball is back, baby.

Other goings on:

Dayton and Wright State both won their openers. Dayton played a close game with North Florida, and won 78-70. Wright State, on the other hand, dispatched Western Carolina 96-73. The Raiders have a legitimate argument for being the best team in Southwest Ohio.

Thursday night is a quiet one, for area college basketball. Friday sees Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, and Missouri State back in action.

College Basketball, Previewing the Queen City

It’s that wonderful time of year when college basketball begins. I’ve taken a look at the area teams (and one not in the area) and will give you what you should watch for this year with each one. This post is specifically about the two big schools that call the Queen City home. That’s the American dream, right? Someone who tells you what to think about?

Cincinnati Bearcats (31-5, 16-2 American), Head Coach – Mick Cronin

Oh no, whatever will Mick do? He’s lost Jacob Evans. He’s lost Kyle Washington. He’s even lost Gary Clark. There are now no more problems for opponents! Clark is gone! Mick is on the other side of the table, smiling. He knows he has a good front court tandem, in Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott, to go along with a trio of guards who could play for just about every team in the country. Jaron Cumberland is a very gifted guard, Cane Broom can be the floor general, and Justin Jenifer will lock down the opposing team’s best guard. They won’t miss a beat on the defensive end, and may be more balanced, offensively. Plus, there’s the added boost of the new Fifth-Third Arena. The Bearcats home got an upgrade, and now, instead of that old driftwood, there’s some nice, sleek wood flooring in there. It’s a proper arena. Basketball is back, and I am looking forward to seeing some games at the shiny new place.

Predicting the team MVP – Tre Scott. It might seem easy to say Jaron Cumberland, here, but I think Scott is a better version of Kyle Washington. He’s athletic and quick in the post and can put up a nice jumper. Going to be a new problem for opposing defenses.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. I was tempted to say the Wichita State games, and those will be phenomenal, but come on. Few things in college basketball beat out the Crosstown Shootout, and this time it’s at Fifth-Third.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Bearcats will enjoy their second-straight year on top of the American and will have a two-seed in the tournament. Look, this team will be able to put up the points it keeps other teams from scoring. Mick will have plenty of weapons, on both sides of the ball, and will be able to employ a defensive scheme that will baffle 9-out of-10 teams.


Xavier Musketeers (29-6, 15-3 Big East), Head Coach – Travis Steele

This is the new Xavier. No Chris Mack. No Trevon Blueitt. No J.P. Macura. No Kerem Kanter. This will not be the juggernaut of last year, but it won’t be bad. New head man, Steele, already has a snappy nickname placed upon his team: “The Men of Steele.” Sometimes I like it, sometimes I roll my eyes, regardless, there’s still a lot to like about the Musketeers. First off, Quentin Goodin stepped in and showed his quality, last year, whenever they needed him to. Naji Marshall also returns to anchor the frontcourt that is now without its leader in Kanter. Steele knows Xavier, he was a great hire, and will lead this team with little deviation from the way Mack led. The Big East is up for grabs, and Xavier is in the mix.

Predicting the team MVP – Naji Marshall. He will lead the team in the important things, things they didn’t have last year. He will lead their defense, which I have a feeling will be improved, and will pull down a lot of rebounds.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. All due respect to Villanova and other Big East powerhouse games, the Crosstown Shootout is the second biggest game in the city of Cincinnati, all year, in any sport. Only Opening Day for the Reds beats it.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – We will look at the job that Travis Steele did in one year and just about forget about Chris Mack. No offense to Mack, he was an amazing coach, but Steele will not miss a beat and Xavier will constantly be in the discussion for the Big East crown.

Check out the other previews of area college basketball:

The Gem City Previews

The Blue Grass Previews

Miami (OH) and Missouri State Previews

Follow @jefffcarr and @sportsinnati on Twitter

Brilliant Idea from the NBA G League

The NBA has come up with an idea to combat the “one and done” mentality of the NCAA, using the G League, and it is solid. This is an idea that, given proper implementation with its nuances, will be beneficial for players, schools, and NBA teams.

In case you haven’t seen anything about this, yet, here is an in-depth article about the new plan for the G League, courtesy of ESPN. https://es.pn/2P9n29h

In short, for prospects determined to be elite talents that would go to school for no more than one year (John Wall, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, etc.) the NBA developmental league, known as the G League, will offer them a one-year contract for $125k, known as the “professional path” plan. This will free them from the bonds of amateurism as outlined by the NCAA and will open them up to focus on the one thing they want to focus on: basketball.

This is a brilliant plan for the player. Think about it. You’re a blue chip, five-star recruit sitting at home. You just got done talking to John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski about coming to play ball at their schools. You’re star-struck by who you talked to, but then it hits you: a good portion of your time will be spentin class. Not class about basketball. Not a genuine professionally experienced basketball person teaching you the ins and outs of the euro-step. No, someone teaching art history, or ethics, or, God forbid, biology. Is a mitochondria going to help you sink a three-point jumper with a hand in your face? Probably not.

So there you are, wondering about which professor is going to fail you (nobody at North Carolina, from what I hear), when you get another call. “Hey, I know basketball is in your blood. Would you like to focus your skill for a year, concentrate only on improving your draft stock and legally make $125,000.00 bucks in the process?” How can you say no?

Oh sure, the first argument out of the gate is about the exposure. Kentucky basketball is legendary and on national television, playing marquee schools like North Carolina. There are passionate fans whose lives revolve around whether their school wins or loses. You don’t want to be a part of that? I mean, if your ultimate goal is to be a top pick in the NBA draft, then this shouldn’t be a huge factor to you. What NBA general manager says “Well, John Smith wasn’t super popular amongst the fan base of State University, so he’s falling down the draft board?” None, I hope. At least no successful GM would. They’re looking for talent and if a player can fit into their scheme. None of that is derived from whether a fan from their college likes them. It comes from their personal development through practices and games.

Sure, the G League isn’t broadcast far and wide, but that may actually be a good thing. How many kids’ abilities are compromised because they did something silly in a game and that school’s rabid fan base then blows up social media with how that kid is now a joke of a player? I would think that the lesser known exposure of the G League would have a sort of charm to it for a blue chip prospect looking to make a career out of putting the ball through the net, because he can develop his game in relative peace.

Plus, the player can hire an agent, get a shoe deal, and do all that marketing stuff outside the game, because he isn’t bound by the NCAA’s silly rules regarding amateurism. That is a huge deal, in my opinion.

In my next post, I’m going to tell you why This is terrific for NBA Teams. Stay tuned, and stay classy.