Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Cincinnati

Cincinnati’s offense

Not generally their forte, and that probably won’t change in 2021

Generally, when you think of Cincinnati basketball, you don’t think of a super-exciting offense. The Bearcats haven’t posted a top-30 finish in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings since 2004, and only once did a Mick Cronin team crack the top 40. The hope with hiring John Brannen after Cronin’s departure was that, along with sustaining most of Cincinnati’s remarkable long-term success at the highest level of college basketball, he’d turn the Bearcats into an exciting, fun team to watch. His Northern Kentucky offenses became progressively better each year he was there, with his final squad ranking 28th nationally in eFG%. If he oversaw a similar turnaround at Cincinnati, he’d be a two-time miracle worker of sorts.

Unfortunately for Brannen, miracles take a lot of time and effort, and Cincinnati’s offense actually looks worse than it has in recent years. The Bearcats lost both Cumberlands – two-time AAC First-Team Jarron and transfer Jaevin – along with another key piece in 2019-20 AAC First-Teamer Trevon Scott. When these three played against Tennessee last December, they combined for 36 of Cincinnati’s 78 points in what ended up being a catalyst for a second-half Cincinnati surge.

Keith Williams runs everything around me

Without those three, the Bearcats have had to rely heavily on guys who previously served as more secondary options. Keith Williams, 6’5” wing, has had 56 possessions thus far end in either a shot attempt or a free throw. It’s through him, and through Brannen’s high ball-screen sets, that the Bearcats prefer to flow:

Cincinnati will use these ball-screens to try and draw attention away from Williams in the half-court, where he has the option to take it to the basket and score/get fouled or pass out to an open shooter. (He has taken some pull-up mid-range jumpers this year, but he’s under 35% on these shots for his career, so Tennessee should be fine with these attempts.) Williams is a fine-enough passer, but he looks to be particularly special in getting to the rim and getting fouled.

Williams already has 26 free throw attempts through three games. He’s a 70% free throw shooter for his career – not elite, but acceptable and around the national average. (He’s 14-for-26 this year, for what it’s worth.) Tennessee’s got to do their best to stay out of foul trouble and keep Williams into his non-comfort zone: either forcing him to pass or to take more difficult two-pointers with a much lower success rate.

One of the best runner-makers in CBB lives here

Along with Williams, Tennessee has to watch for the actual ball-handler/screener sets. David DeJulius is a Michigan transfer who’s shown some very solid proficiency in scoring out of these sets by way of an unusually efficient runner:

Runners are typically one of the least efficient shots a basketball player can take, but I’m honestly willing to give DeJulius the benefit of the doubt and say that an otherwise unremarkable shooter is really that good at runners/floaters. Along with last year at Michigan, DeJulius is 26-for-46 (56.5%) on runners in the half-court during his college career. 56.5% would’ve been good enough to rank #3 of 131 players last year who took 40+ runners on the season, so I think it’s a legit thing. As crazy as this sounds, Tennessee is better off letting DeJulius take a three (30.6% on 108 career attempts) or get to the rim (28/44 for his career, but only 22 of these attempts were in half-court) than take his beloved floater. Also, gotta watch for the roll man.

DeJulius, as we’ve noted, is quite happy to pass out of these to any number of open players underneath the basket. Cincinnati is going Full 2004 and running out a double-big starting lineup of 7’1” Chris Vogt:

And 6’10” Rapolas Ivanauskas, the guy who got pink eye against Tennessee almost two years ago:

Yes, that guy is on Cincinnati now. Anyway, it’s worth noting that 6’8” Tari Eason, a freshman, started against Furman…but I am a little alarmed of the presence of a Large Boy Lineup. Mainly, I fear Tennessee would run out Uros Plavsic and Fulkerson together as a response, which helps no one and only makes me very sad. Anyway, Ivanauskas and Vogt are a combined 24-for-30 on twos this year, and Ivanauskas has shown a serious desire to shoot threes in the past, making 75 of his 222 career attempts (33.8%). Even the Large Boy Lineup can lend itself to four-shooters, which could be a tough matchup for Tennessee if either of Yves Pons/John Fulkerson find themselves in foul trouble. That said, Brannen seems to be leaning away from the Large Boy Lineup, as it’s been pretty brutal defensively through three games. More on that later.

Unlike Future, they do not have 100 shooters

Lastly: the most important part of turning any offense around long-term is, obviously, shooting. Based on who Cincinnati returned for this 2020-21 season, I would’ve projected their season-long 3PT% somewhere between 32-33%. That’s a tad below the national average, and even 32.5% would’ve only ranked 205th last season. (2019-20 Cincinnati: 242nd. Small steps!) The Bearcats…are not at 32-33%. No, they’re at 23.2% through their first week of basketball:

Here’s the issue: I actually think most of what Cincinnati does, in terms of shot quality, is perfectly fine. They actually take a below-average number of mid-range twos and get 54.6% of their shots overall either at the rim or in the paint, which is almost 7% above the national average. Their ratio of corner threes to above-the-break threes isn’t quite what I’d want as a coach, but it’s nothing awful. They just…don’t appear to have any excellent shooters.

Cincinnati’s best three-point shooting returner was Mika Adams-Woods, who is a career 35.5% shooter on 67 attempts. That’s not much to go off of! Beyond him, no other returner even hit 34%, and unless you have guys that can consistently be a serious threat from downtown, no opponent is truly required to respect you from beyond the arc every night. It puts a serious limiting cap on how good your offense can be, even if you do get a ton of rebounds and score at a pretty good rate inside, as the Bearcats do. If Cincinnati was simply missing a lot of open shots they normally hit, I’d feel one way, but considering they’re missing guarded shots at almost the exact same rate, I don’t know if it matters. They won’t stay at 23.2%, but even cracking 33% feels like it would be a stretch.

As with Colorado, here’s a quick scout of Cincinnati’s main eight-man rotation. Players need to be averaging at least 10 minutes a game to receive a write-up.

  • David DeJulius (PG). High assist, low turnover rate. Ball-handling duties generally run through him in most of Cincinnati’s main sets, though Williams gets run too. Not a great shooter (30.6% 3PT, 70.1% FT) for his career. Loves, and hits, floaters.
  • Mika Adams-Woods (SG). Turnover numbers look way better this year compared to last, though we’ll see if that lasts. Takes an equal number of threes and twos, probably Cincinnati’s best overall shooter…which is to say he’s at about 36% from three for his career and 79% from the line. Typically doesn’t create his own shot.
  • Keith Williams (SF). De-facto #1 option as oldest guy on team. Relentless driver that is drawing nine fouls per 40 minutes (!). Worth noting: on everything that isn’t an attempt within four feet of the rim in his career, he’s shot 31.4%. If you keep him away from the rim, this is an easy win…but it’s very hard to do that.
  • Tari Eason? (PF). Maybe? He got the start over Rapolas Ivanauskas against Furman, but that could be meaningless. Eason is a freshman that’s been awful offensively (six turnovers, six made FGs) but has easily been the best rebounder on the roster at 6’8”.
  • Chris Vogt (center). 7’1”, 260 pounds, 87.5% on twos. Has taken one (1) shot outside of the paint this season. Last year, 184 of his 190 shot attempts were in the paint. He is what he is: tall stiff guy that you look for underneath the basket and sometimes in the post.
  • Rapolas Ivanauskas. Might start at 4, but doesn’t appear likely. Amazingly, at 6’10”, probably Cincinnati’s second-best three-point shooter…which is to say he’s hit just over a third of his threes in college. Bearcats like using him as the main screener in ball-screen sets.
  • Jeremiah Davenport. 4-8 on threes after going 2-14 last year. Hmmm! Appears to be utility bench piece; has had minutes everywhere from point to power forward thus far. Does not create own shot.
  • Zach Harvey. Scored 7 against Lipscomb, scored zero in both follow-up games. Most frequently appears to give Adams-Woods rest, though also has had time spelling Williams.

NEXT PAGE: Cincinnati’s defense

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