UC regressing as Big East Play begins?

The game was rather ugly, with extended stretches of stagnant scores and a ferocious protection of the glass. It swung wildly in momentum by the subtlest of events, oscillating back and forth between the two teams, as the Cincinnati Bearcats and their opponent managed to squeeze in productive possessions amidst a cadre of missed shots, both good looks and poor. The game’s final points, unsurprisingly, were scored with more than two minutes remaining on the clock. A handful of missed shots and wasted possessions occupied the time succeeding Tony Snell’s cool jumper, culminating Sean Kilpatrick’s last-gasp effort being by Alex Kirk. Cheikh Mbodj’s subsequent attempted miracle came a second-or-so too late, although the fact the shot found the bottom of the net was miraculous enough.

The biggest lead New Mexico held at point in the game was all of one point, despite the fact the Bearcats shot 31.3%, missed fifteen (!!) shots inside the painted area and generally looked abysmal on offense. It was aesthetically as grotesque as your typical Quentin Tarantino flick, a style which has been more-or-less adopted by Mick Cronin’s Bearcats as their offensive limitations have continued to manifest. Cincinnati is presently second in the nation in rebounds per game, a mark which tells as much about their propensity to miss shots, particularly close to the basket, as it does their offensive rebounding prowess, both of which are significant. As undeniably talented as the two-and-a-half playmakers on the perimeter are (JaQuon Parker, while certainly a good, and likely underrated, player is visibly less dynamic than Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick and thus isn’t apportioned the same amount of credit) the Bearcats had absolutely zero scoring punch on the interior against New Mexico, relegating the vast majority of their offensive looks to the perimeter and transition. Granted, Cincinnati’s performance against the Lobos was likely an outlier, as the Bearcats have a potential solution on the interior which could serve to placate some of their half court woes.

As a rule, Pittsburgh doesn’t lose at home. Last season’s lackluster performance sullied the pristine home record a bit, but entering Monday’s game the Panthers were 174-19 in their eleven seasons at the Petersen Events Center, winning more than 90% of their games. It’s undeniably a difficult place to play and while this year’s Pittsburgh squad isn’t up to snuff with the Jamie Dixon teams from a few years back, it’s demonstrably better than last year’s team and a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament. And while it took all forty minutes to finally pull away, Cincinnati proved who the better team was Monday afternoon, slowly pounding away at the Panthers until they finally relented.

The Bearcats have established themselves as one of the toughest teams in the country, without question, and have firmly established their MO as a gritty, tenacious group of athletes who are deep and will defend their heart out while dominating the boards on both ends of the floor. This will play well in the offensive deficient Big East, enabling them to consistently grind out victories against teams overmatched in intensity, depth or both, almost assuredly resulting in a top-4 finish in conference play and, likely, a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This team’s floor is rather high, although a handful more Big East victories are still needed before it’s cemented into place.

The worry about this Bearcats team, instead, is regarding their ceiling. KenPom currently ranks their offense 53rd in the country; the fifteen teams currently ranked above them, the next-lowest offensive ranking is Syracuse’s 24th. While the Bearcats’ grind-it-out style should fit well within the Big East, the slowed-down style of March is worrisome, given UC’s shaky half-court execution. The perimeter triumvirate are more-or-less known quantities at this point in their careers, but alone they aren’t enough to prop up the offense to where it needs to be to make significant noise in the NCAA Tournament.

Enter Titus Rubles, a JUCO transfer from Blinn College.

To steal one of the more overused sports clichés, he is the Bearcats’ X-Factor. He possesses a skill-set unique to the Bearcats: the ability to knock down a mid-range jumper and, as he displayed against Pittsburgh, create opportunities for himself. Cincinnati is consistently hamstrung by its reliance on their guards to create every offensive opportunity, no matter the situation. Rubles, while still not accomplished enough to score via isolation, can attack seams in a defense and find the rim while also demanding attention as a spot-up shooter. He is the potential panacea to the Bearcats’ half-court woes, the fourth offensive option so desperately needed by Mick Cronin’s bunch.

After a long, arduous rebuild, Mick Cronin’s team has just about everything a team needs for an extended run in the NCAA’s. A veteran, talented backcourt, depth, an identity, tenacious defense and even the additional bonus of exception work on the glass. All that is holding them back is a far-too-average attack in the half court, and while their genuine lack of front court scoring will always make this their weakness, there is significant room for improvement. The majority of this room has been created by Titus Rubles’ dynamic skill set. He’s yet to fully capitalize in a game against a legit opponent but the potential has flashed numerous times.

Cincinnati will continue to flourish winning ugly basketball games, grinding victories out. They will never be an aesthetically pleasing team to watch and will certainly struggle in the half court. However, they will likely not reach their full potential without significant growth from Rubles. If he takes a step forward, the entire offense is likely to take one, and that may provide just enough momentum for the Bearcats to capitalize on their immense promise, perhaps even ending up in Atlanta.

1 The Orange are currently ranked 2nd in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings, joining Louisville (#1) and UC (#5) in the nation’s top five.. Defense Lives in the Big East