Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Cincinnati

Cincinnati’s defense

Might actually be…not very good??? For the first time in a decade?

As noted previously, when you think of Cincinnati basketball, you think of aggressive, gross defense that locks you up for 40 minutes. You think of having ten of your shots blocked; you think about turning it over 15 times; you don’t even get trips to the free throw line for a momentary pleasure. Instead, you’re forced to think about either shooting over the top of your opponents or praying that you’re there on a night where their defensive rebounding focus isn’t on-point. To some extent, Cincinnati upheld the Mick Cronin/Bob Huggins standard last year: 35th in defensive Block%, 8th in 2PT% allowed, 97th in opponent Free Throw Rate.

This year, it appears to be different, and not in a good way. It’s just three games, but all three of Cincinnati’s opponents have made at least 47% of their twos (even that as a full-season rate would be Cincinnati’s worst in 13 years). Along with that, the Bearcats have fouled opponents like crazy: 21, 25, and 27 free throw attempts have been given up thus far. Bart Torvik’s schedule-adjusted numbers rank all three performances as fine: .893, 962, and .967 PPP allowed post-adjustment. That’s fine. However, there’s one clear issue that stands out to me: the quality of shots Cincinnati is allowing is alarmingly good for opponents.

Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality tool ranks the Cincinnati defense in just the 49th-percentile nationally thus far for opponent shot quality. That’s shockingly low for a team that ranked in the 90th-percentile in the same category last season. Could this work itself out three months from now? Sure, but very rarely do you see a Cincinnati team give up looks like this at the rim:

Or open threes like this one:

Take this, for example: Cincinnati played Lipscomb nine days ago and won, 67-55. That looks about like you’d expect, no? No big deal? Maybe so, maybe no. While the final score looks good, the game itself was quite harrowing: Lipscomb led 51-49 with six minutes remaining and only trailed for seven minutes of a 40-minute game. While Cincinnati had a giant shot volume edge (62 FGAs to 41) due to forcing a bunch of turnovers, they also allowed Lipscomb to take 34 of their 41 shot attempts on corner threes or in the paint. That’s a pretty dreadful rate of forcing bad attempts, especially when the Bearcats only got 31 of their 62 from the same spots offensively.

Similarly against Furman, Cincinnati had to survive allowing a mind-boggling game where Furman took 56 of their 58 shots either in the paint or from three. Of Furman’s 24 catch-and-shoot attempts, 13 were left open, per Synergy. The Bearcats were quite lucky to escape this one with a win, considering Furman returned all but one rotation player from a team that ranked in the top 20 in eFG% last season. Plus, the Paladins only hit two of these 13 open attempts.

I can’t say for sure why this is happening, beyond the simple explanation of “we just lost three of our six best players.” Cincinnati’s pretty much never allowed their opponents to get shots as good as they’re getting right now. Yes, some semblance of the old Cincinnati still exists, with the Bearcats ranking just inside the top 70 nationally in blocks at the rim:

But what good does it make if Bearcat opponents are still converting two-thirds of their attempts there? In particular, Cincinnati’s had a wide array of struggles against ball-screens so far, which is very unusual for a program that’s thrived on blowing those up:

Plus, again, the fouling issues. Last season, Cincinnati had five games in a 30-game season where they gave up an Opponent Free Throw Rate of 45% or higher. (If you’ve forgotten, this is FT attempts divided by FG attempts. 26 divided by 50 would be a 52% rate, for instance.) All of Cincinnati’s first three games have seen the opponent get to the line at a 46% rate or greater, and every single frontcourt rotation member has seen time on the bench with serious foul trouble.

This one could iron itself out, but it seems quite worrisome because none of their first three opponents even ranked in the top 200 last season in offensive Free Throw Rate. If Cincinnati is fouling below-average FT getters like this, imagine what’ll happen if Tennessee drives early and often.

Likely no Large Boy Lineup

Noteworthy thing: Brannen seems to be gravitating away from the Ivanauskas/Vogt lineups. After starting the first two games together, Ivanauskas was benched in favor of a freshman to begin the Furman game, and Brannen didn’t run out an Ivanauskas/Vogt lineup once against the Paladins. Against both Lipscomb and Xavier, these lineups got at least 30 possessions of usage in each game, and they were…not encouraging:

  • Lipscomb: 29 points allowed in 30 possessions with both on, 26 allowed in 35 with one or the other off
  • Xavier: 37 points allowed in 32 possessions with both on, 40 allowed in 39 with one or the other off

Basically, it appears to be a bad defensive lineup, so I wouldn’t anticipate seeing it much against Tennessee.

Yes, they run a zone…sometimes

Finally, the all-important question: Does Cincinnati run a zone? The answer is resounding: maybe. For six possessions against Furman, Cincinnati ran a 1-3-1 zone with Ivanauskas at the back and DeJulius up front. It was…somewhat successful? Furman went 0-for-4 on mostly open threes while grabbing a pair of offensive rebounds and forcing Cincinnati to commit a foul on a  good cut. On Furman’s first possession seeing the zone, they did force a turnover, but…well, I’ll take my chances here.

This is not something Cincinnati ran much at all last year, for what it’s worth; just 80ish possessions across 30 games. But it is in the playbook, and I imagine Tennessee’s preparing for it to come out.

NEXT PAGE: Please make open shots

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