Alex Frank | Sports Director
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Last night’s Bearcats win against SMU in the American Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinals was just one win but I really needed that win as a fan, especially after the two losses to end he regular-season. Going into the game, I honestly was not confident in the Bearcats winning. I didn’t know if they were going to linger the slump from the end of the regular-season into postseason play, I didn’t know if they were still exhausted having finished the regular-season with six games in a 17-day span, I simply didn’t know what to expect. But what I saw was a rejuvenated Bearcats team that played really well and showed why they deserved to remain in the top 25 even after losing to Central Florida and Houston to conclude the regular-season.
Jarron Cumberland played with a newfound motor last night, and it was different than at any other point this season. I had not seen Cumberland so emphatically celebrate at any point this season as he did on multiple and-ones in the second half.
As much as I was happy that he won American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, I was more shocked than excited. After the Bearcats final week of the regular-season, I didn’t expect him at all to win the award with the slump he was enduring down the stretch in the regular-season. Memphis’s Jerimiah Martin and Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. had great finishes down the stretch in the regular-season, and I think players who win this kind of reward are the ones who play the best down the stretch.
But his performance last night is a testament to most of the regular-season he had. When the game was hanging in the balance, Cumberland stepped up and imposed his will on the SMU defense. But it wasn’t just scoring where Cumberland delivered; he also led the Bearcats with eight assists. As Mick Cronin talked about after the home game against Wichita State in mid-February, anyone can impact a game by doing more than just scoring.
While this performance wasn’t vintage Bearcats basketball like the game at SMU in the regular season was, there were some areas that played a big role in the Bearcats victory. Cincinnati out-rebounded SMU 26-28, including 16-10 on the offensive glass. Despite SMU’s Jimmy Whitt Jr. hitting all of 10 shots inside the perimeter, the Mustangs still only mustered 26 points in the paint compared to the Bearcats 38.
Tre Scott continues to prove my belief that he is the X-factor on this team. He had a third of, 12, Cincinnati’s 36 total rebounds in the win over SMU. Scott was also tied for second on the team, with Justin Jenifer, scoring 17 points in the game and he also had two steals. As opposing teams key in on Cumberland and Justin Jenifer, that leaves Scott open to create damage down low in the interior, which he did last night. He might be my X-factor on this team, but he embodies the developmental program that is Bearcats basketball led by Coach Cronin. Scott came into the season having not made a single start and only playing an average of 9.9 minutes in the 2017-18 season. In his first start this season against Ohio State, he racked up just eight points and six rebounds in 29 minutes. In short, he has come a long way since then just like this entire Bearcats team.
It was great to see Jenifer back in top form last night as a shooter. As I have mentioned before, I think we all knew going into the season that he was a great ball-handler but wasn’t necessarily an offensive threat. Heck, I even called for Cane Broome to be the starting point guard at the end of the regular-season heading into March last season. But what Jenifer did last night, 17 points on a perfect 6-6 from the field including 5-5 from beyond the perimeter, speaks volumes as to how much his shooting has improved throughout the course of the season. I may have jinxed him when I mentioned to Ethan after Jenifer’s fourth three before halftime that if you have a really good guard, you can go really far in the tournament as Jenifer only had three points in the second half. But hey, it is nice to have a conference Player of the Year on your team when Jenifer is not scoring when the game is on the line.
Eighty-two points is not a point total you see every game from the Bearcats. Shooting over 50 percent is not as uncommon as 82 points, but that was the first time in what feels like an eternity the Bearcats shot that well from the field. As we learned from the Houston game last week, your defense can only do so much. Eventually, your offense is going to have to score some points when, as Cronin said, the dam breaks. I understand that it’s easier to prevent than create scoring but as we saw last year and in 2016 with Villanova, offense can win championships. After all, offense wins games and winning games is how you put yourselves in a position to win championships.
The Bearcats will obviously have to win today against Wichita State to put themselves in a position to win the AAC Tournament Championship tomorrow, and they will need offense to win this game. The Shockers put up 80 points against Temple last night, and are, in my opinion, without question the hottest team in the AAC and arguably one of the hottest teams in the country. We all know this Bearcats program is built on defense and rebounding, but offense like we saw last night will be paramount to the Bearcats winning this game and putting themselves in a position to win the tournament tomorrow. But don’t think about tomorrow at all today and during the game. All that matters in March is right here, right now.