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!

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Envy

There’s a reason people do not like Boston sports fans. They say it’s because they’re jerks, or they’re too cocky, or stuff like that. The real reason is because Boston teams win…a lot, and their teams don’t.

Look at this picture:

 

That’s just silly, right? I mean I have lived for 29 years and haven’t been to one single championship parade. Here is this dude who has lived 12 years less than I have, and has seen 12 more parades. You want the truth about the disdain for Boston sports fans, which sometimes spreads to the Boston sports teams? People want to be like them.

I have been a Cincinnati sports fan for my entire life. I’ve lived in different places than Cincinnati, but I never stopped being a fan of Queen City sports. I’ve endured the struggles of the 90’s for the Bengals, the lack of relevancy (except on a few occasions) of the Reds, and the March sadness of the Bearcats. I still hold my head high that one day, it’ll happen. Yet, here’s this kid who, just about every year, celebrates his hometown team in (insert sport here) win another trophy. I’m not afraid to admit it, I am straight jealous.

Are the Reds close to doing this? The Bengals? FC Cincinnati is just started professional sports, so we’ll give them a few years. Mick Cronin and the boys are retooling. Luke Fickell is in a tough spot in that the college football playoff voters will never give a playoff spot to a team from the American. Sorry, they’re not. So, things have to happen, for any one of our wonderful, awesome, amazing teams before we will be going to a parade.

Meanwhile, Bostonians are marking their calendars when the next possible parade may be held. Must be nice.

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.

Happy Veterans Day Weekend, Cincinnati

It’s Friday and my mind is focused on a three day weekend, but I did want to impart some thoughts on the world of Cincinnati sports for this weekend.

The Bearcats football team has a massive matchup this Saturday night. USF comes into Cincinnati an underdog, but I do not believe they’re as bad as the line (UC favored by two touchdowns), but this is definitely a winnable game for UC. It all comes down to focus. Luke Fickell had the boys ready for Navy’s triple option offense, a running attack that put up the loftiest rushing total by an opponent in Bearcats history, last year. This year, though, the Bearcats held them to just over two yards a carry. Now Fickell has to keep his team reigned in as they approach a monster matchup with the best team in the conference, the “defending national champion” Central Florida Knights. South Florida is not good in the cold, and it will be coooooold tomorrow night. Still, the Bearcats cannot take them for granted, as the Bulls were undefeated and ranked in the Top-25, as soon as three weeks ago.

The Xavier Musketeers play their second game of the season on Saturday, against Evansville. Another solid mid-major opponent for the Muskies to grow against. The question will be, will Naji Marshall return to the floor in this one? Didn’t have him in the opener and they got by, it will be difficult against a solid squad from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Men of Steele found a way to win, forcing turnovers late, we will see if that trend continues. Xavier hasn’t had a good defense in the past few years, but if they consistently force turnovers, there’s your defense.

The Cincinnati professional football team may be smashed this Sunday. They may also (tiny chance) win. The New Orleans professional football team is really good. They have a future hall of famer at quarterback and, possibly, a future hall of famer at coach. They have oodles of talent at running back and wide receiver. They are also coming off a huge win to knock the Los Angeles professional football team off their undefeated pedestal and have to travel to a non-conference opponent and play in dismal weather. Not the brightest, most motivational backstory for the fleur de lis-wearing pigskin professionals, but they are a much better team (given injuries) than that of the Orange and Black. Honestly, if Marvin Lewis’ men come out on top, I will be pleasantly surprised, but if they don’t it won’t even phase me. The all-important game for the Bengals is next week, in Baltimore, against the Ravens. So long as they don’t come out of this week’s game with even more injuries than they are already plagued with, I think they’ll be fine. Also, a personal reason I wouldn’t mind the Bengals losing, is I will be at a wedding watching on my phone. Shout out to Zack on his big day (holler at me if you actually read this, bro).

Two Reds rumors circulating have me feeling a certain way. The first is that some teams are interested in Eugenio Suarez. Well, so are we in Cincinnati, frankly, and I do not want to see him traded. The other rumor is very encouraging, and that is the Cleveland Indians are open to trading away their ace, Corey Kluber. Now, it will require a king’s ransom, but go for it, Reds! He is one of the best pitchers in the game. He will cost a few top prospects, but he is also the kind of pitcher who will bring the wins. He’s under control for a few years, so it won’t be a rental, which gives the Reds the perfect pitcher to build their rotation around. Plus, I am sure Derek Johnson will enjoy having a vet like Kluber to be the “stopper” of the rotation. I am a Cincinnati sports optimist, to a fault, but I am excited by what’s going on around Great American Ballpark.

Here’s to a three-day weekend, for some of us and Happy Veteran’s Day!

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.

Ford Era, Bears off to Roaring Start

So, like I mentioned in my preview of this season, I cover Cincinnati sports, but I really like following this up-and-coming coach out in Missouri. The Missouri State Bears (1-0) got their first victory of the Dana Ford era and it was a thorough dismantling of Oral Roberts (0-1) by a score of 84-50. Get ready for the Bears, if Tuesday is any indication, this is going to be a good year in Springfield.

Jarred Dixon led the charge for the Bears with a career-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. The senior displayed his catch-and-shoot ability, but also showed his talent of creating shots, giving MSU as dynamic scorer to lean on in any situation. He led four Bears who scored at least 11. Ryan Kreklow put up 13 points, off the bench, Keandre Cook added 12, and Kabir Mohammed pitched in 11.

The Bears played Dana-ball, beating the Golden Eagles on the boards and causing as many turnovers as MSU had assists (21). Senior forward Obediah Church stuffed the stat sheet with six points, seven rebounds, four blocks, and three assists. Coach Ford also has his point guard in Josh Webster. The senior finished the game with nine assists, seven of which came in the first half. Webster will be one to watch, heading into the weekend, though, as he looked to have injured his left ankle, early in the second half. He did return and finish the game, though, so it may be minor.

ORU put up a fight, but it didn’t last much past the halfway point of the first half. Five and a half minutes into the opening frame, the Bears took the lead, for good, at 15-14.

Coach Ford and the Bears will turn their focus to Robert Morris (Friday) and Stetson (Sunday), this weekend.

Other Area teams:

Kentucky suffered its worst loss of the John Calipari era, Tuesday, as Duke thrashed em 118-84. UK will need to get it’s defense in shape, though these early November games tend to mean very little, come March. This will be plenty of fuel to the practice fires that Calipari will be stoking all year. I can still see that game being a championship preview.

Xavier took care of business with IUPUI, winning 82-69. Were it not for a rash of turnovers by the Jaguars, late, this may have been a lot closer. Xavier struggled to pull away for much of the game. They’re still building an identity under Travis Steele, but it’s nice to see a one in the win column, rather than the loss column.

NKU beat Wilmington College. Nothing really to see here.

Who’s Next:

At 6 pm, The Bearcats re-open Fifth-Third Arena tonight with the Buckeyes. I’m looking forward to sitting down with a few cold ones and taking this one in.

Dayton also hosts North Florida and Wright State welcomes Western Carolina to town. Both of those games tip at 7 pm.

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