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.

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Bengals Optimism Postponed

During this time in which I’ve neglected this space, I joined a gym. Figuring it was time to try and offset *some* of the ballpark food, Skyline Chili, and Taco Bell that I regularly consume, my wife dragged me to (no free ads) gym. We sat down with a trainer, came up with these things called “goals”, and found out its going to take awhile to attain said “goals.” Not going to lie to you, that period of time that is said to take awhile is taking awhile.

Which got me thinking about my favorite football team and their offseason. The Cincinnati Bengals began this offseason with the promise of new horizons. They didn’t necessarily promise better horizons, but after having spent my entire football-comprehending life with the same Bengals head coach, new sounded awesome. Here’s the rub, with the promise of new horizons comes the promise that positive horizons may take awhile.

Much like pacing in place on a treadmill or moving parts of weighted machines, the various decisions and machinations of the Bengals during this offseason have been a bit laborious.

They’ve all but signed a contract extension with Andy Dalton, when it comes to committing to who is the definition of an average QB. They passed on multiple chances to acquire the franchise’s future QB and instead settling for a kid (Ryan Finley) who figures to be the next AJ McCarron. They used the free agent period to bring back everyone from last year’s team who managed to lose more games than they won and even when they brought in a new face, it was a guy who’s name sounds almost fake (John Miller). Their biggest acquisition to fill their most underachieving position (linebacker) was a third round pick (Germaine Pratt). All the while pushing the hashtag “New Dey” and promising things will be different.

Now, believe me, they had to do this. Paul Brown Stadium was barren, fans had moved past the upset phase into apathy, and the franchise’s most popular player (AJ Green) even seemed disenchanted. But how much did they really change? Again, the bulk of this evaluation will take awhile, because we have to see what it’s like during game day.

They’re profiling as a run-heavy, control the clock, keep our defense off the field-type team, but that has been the offseason mantra before. I’m inclined to believe it may be closer to this with a new coaching staff, so we’ll see, but they aren’t preaching any new offseason sermon, here. A historically bad defense added new talent whose grades were no better than third round draft choices, and all are rookies. All of that leads back to what the scheme will be like which, again, will take awhile to understand.

So, with a promise of new comes, instead of positive vibes and feeling of excitement, a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty as to the direction of the team. As it sits on paper, this team is going to have to be REALLY good on offense to make up for its defense. With an offensive-minded coach, who knows? Maybe that happens. However, Zac Taylor has never held the clipboard for an entire season and with the well-publicized selectiveness of who his defensive coordinator would be, he’s also put a lot of pressure on himself before his horse is even at the starting gate. So as for my optimism about the Bengals, much like my current feeling towards the gym, it’s going to take awhile.

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!

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.

Zac Taylor: Five Burning Questions

The Cincinnati Bengals made it official and signed Zac Taylor to be the 10th coach in franchise history. Right out of the gate he has a myriad of questions to answer. Most of them cannot be answered for another 10 months. Some of them can be answered this week. All of them need to be answered, at some point. Here are the big ones.

1.      Who will be his defensive coordinator?

This one is the most obvious question because it’s been a most obvious weakness, the past few years. It also has some mustard to it, because the next D-coordinator needs to be a little experienced. Think Wade Phillips with Sean McVay-type pairing. The experienced candidate would be a wise, Obi-Wan-type guy who Taylor can lean on, and who can reign in Vontaze Burfict.

It also needs to be a guy with some new ideas. Now this is my personal thought, but Dom Capers has been rumored, and some have recoiled from that, sighting his 3-4 scheme. The Bengals have run a 4-3 scheme since before Marvin Lewis came to town. Now might be a good time to try something new, though. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t completely prepared for it. Their linebackers need overhauling for this idea to work. But that can happen. They already have two guys who could make the change work, in-house, in Malik Jefferson and Carl Lawson. What they don’t have are middle linebackers. They could address that in the draft, but that’s a thought for another blog post. Suffice it to say, they shouldn’t rule out Capers simply because his scheme is a bit different from what they’re used to.

2.      Who is his quarterback, beyond 2019?

This upcoming season is crucial, not only for the Bengals coach, but also for the Bengals QB. Andy Dalton is getting a little older and, by most accounts, has plateaued in his professional development. Can Taylor and his new offensive staff inject some sort of new life into Dalton’s Bengals career, or are his stripes so worn from the last years of Marvin Lewis that a new guy is needed, altogether? Some, myself included, believe that Andy is right there in the middle of the pack, as far as NFL QB rankings go. Not bad, but not great. Maybe Taylor is just what the doctor ordered for him to find that next gear. Or maybe the Bengals meet their franchise QB on April 25? Time will tell.

3.      Does he like Skyline, or Gold Star?

One makes okay chili and is the sponsor of the Bengals and the other is awesome and is named Skyline. Will he be a pawn of corporate contractual obligation, or will he be the free-thinker with a wise pallet that we all think he can be?

4.       Will he quietly do a better job?

We’ve been hearing how important it is to do a better job for 16 years now. Will Taylor have the wherewithal to complete the task without reminding us of the objective each week?

5.      Will he be able to improve Tanya O’Rourke’s golf game?

Quite possibly the most important accomplishment of any NFL head coach is how he imparts his knowledge of the links onto the local news anchor. This is what will earn him his contract extensions for years to come.

The first year of Taylor’s tenure is fraught with excitement and peril. I’ll be all over each development as we look forward to a new era in Bengals football.

Thinking Out Loud on Paper

Got the house to myself, for the day, and my mind has a few things on it, but none of them could really fill out an entire blog post, so I’m combining them.

I love the idea of Zac Taylor. It looks like the Rams QB coach need only dot some T’s and cross some I’s and he’ll be the Bengals next head coach. I love the thought of new things for my favorite NFL team. They’ve been stale, for awhile, and an infusion of fresh-thinking is just what the doctor ordered. Some are saying this could revolutionize Andy Dalton. I don’t know about that, but new thinking could change his career. Currently he, and the Bengals, have been the definition of mediocre for years. Just good enough to not be bad enough. The man, himself, Taylor has limited experience, and a checkered resume in the eyes of Cincinnati sports fans, but he’s not Marvin Lewis of Hue Jackson. For that reason, I am really excited for everything that is about to happen at Paul Brown Stadium.

Mid-major basketball is my favorite regular-season college basketball to watch. It’s usually pretty nip and tuck, both teams carry the identity of their coach instead of their star players, and for all but one in their conference, they’re not guaranteed action in March. At time of writing, I am watching the second half of Kent State and Ball State with Seton Hall and Butler waiting in the wings to switch to on commercials. Plus, there’s always that little glimmer of information to gather for bracket picking…that will inevitably lead to me making a dumb upset pick. College basketball rocks.

I really enjoy playing video games, but I’ve met enough people to know that I am not a “gamer.” With that being said, I feel like the culture of video games, for the last decade-and-a-half, really, has leaned heavily on first-person shooters. I think my personal video game taste has undergone that whole periodic taste change, thing, in that I don’t like FPS-style games, any more. I love adventure games, and sports games, but I don’t like FPS. Is that allowed? Maybe I’m moving past video games? This is weird to me, but I just can’t with FPS anymore.

I also hate trying to “correctly” hang jeans, but that’s neither here nor there.

Looking forward to checking out a new place in Middletown next week called the Swire Inn. It’s brand new and it’s a pub. My expectations are a little slice of heaven. Are they too high, probably, but I will most likely blog about my experience, so stay tuned.

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.