Cincinnati Basketball: Are the Undefeated Bearcats a Contender or a Pretender?

Rob WeilCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2010

Ibrahima Thomas isn't listening to Cincinnati's critics
Ibrahima Thomas isn't listening to Cincinnati's criticsJim McIsaac/Getty Images

After the Cincinnati Bearcats 66-56 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday night, Ibrahima Thomas found himself talking about the many people that are skeptical of Cincinnati’s unblemished 10-0 record.

“We’ve got a lot of critics,” said the senior forward, “but we’re not listening to that. We’ve just got a schedule like everybody else and we’re going to play our schedule and try to win every game.”

On the surface it seems ridiculous that one of the nine remaining undefeated teams left in D1 college basketball would be dealing with “a lot of critics.” When you analyze the schedule more closely though, you gain a better understanding of why many people are still questioning just how good the undefeated Bearcats really are. Cincinnati’s opponents have a combined record of 45-67 thus far and the Bearcats have only played one game outside of the state of Ohio.

Dayton and Oklahoma are the only two recognizable “name opponents” the team has faced thus far and there are questions surrounding the Flyers and Sooners as well. Oklahoma is only 5-6 this season, with one of their losses coming against D2 Chaminade University. Furthermore, the questionable early departures of Willie Warren, Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith “Tiny” Gallon have left the Sooners without any elite playmakers.

Dayton, meanwhile, has a more impressive record at 8-3, but a pair of two point home victories against Savannah State and Central Connecticut State makes you wonder just how strong this team really is.

It shouldn't be that big of a surprise that people still doubt this Cincinnati team. To be honest nobody gave the Bearcats much of a chance to succeed going into the season. Cincinnati was projected to finish 12th in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll and the buzz surrounding the team was minimal to say the least.

Highly touted prep star Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson left the program after one year as did senior guard Deonta Vaughn who ended his Bearcat career as one of the programs all-time leading scorers. The general thinking was that when an NIT team loses their two best players they probably won’t be fighting for an NCAA bid on Selection Sunday next season.

With that being said, an unexpected result has come about from the loss of these two marquee players.

The departures of Stephenson and Vaughn have forced Cincinnati to adopt an offensive philosophy of team basketball and working for the best shot, compared to an offense last year that relied heavily on one-on-one dribble drives and isolation sets. Cincinnati’s 16.3 assists per game ranks 33rd nationally and is evidence of this new offensive philosophy.

Another catalyst for change has been the arrival of freshman forward Justin Jackson. Now unless you are a Cincinnati Bearcat fan or avidly follow high school recruiting you probably have never heard of this guy.  Justin wasn’t ranked in the Rivals top 150 prospects nor did he play in the McDonald’s All-American game. In addition, the freshman from Jacksonville has only averaged 1.9 points and 2.8 rebounds through ten games this season. In his limited time on the court, though, you will find Justin diving for loose balls and playing with an energy and enthusiasm that Bearcat fans have been longing to see.

In his short time with the team his infectious passion has already helped change the culture within the team and invigorate a Bearcats squad who had been criticized by fans in the past for playing with a lack of energy.

Now before I throw around anymore compliments it should be known that this team is definitely not the second coming of the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers and there are still many question marks regarding this squad.

One of my main concerns is the team’s three-point shooting, which has been inconsistent to say the least. The Bearcats torched the nets in a recent pair of games against Georgia Southern and Utah Valley State, making 20 of their 40 attempted three-pointers and shooting 50% from three-point range.

On the flip side, Cincinnati made only six of 34 three-pointers in two of their closer victories of the season against Oklahoma and IPFW. Consistent perimeter shooting will be a must if this team hopes to finish in the top half of the Big East standings and realize their dream of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.

Another concern is that the team doesn't have one specific player that they can rely on when they absolutely need a basket. Yes, this team has taken great pride in their balanced scoring and the fact that four players average over ten points per game. Traditionally, though, teams that have finished in the upper half of the Big East standings have had an elite impact player that they can count on when the game gets dicey.

Cincinnati has a lot of good players, but I’m not sure that they have one outstanding player.  Yancy Gates is the closest player they have to this. At 6'8" 260 lbs, the junior forward has an NBA body and a solid skill set, yet he has a tendency to be passive in the post and has never been a truly dominant player.

Clearly the improved passing and energy are welcomed changes for this Cincinnati team, and while the aforementioned question marks are areas of concern we will still have to do some waiting before we truly find out whether this Cincinnati team is a legitimate contender or a pretender. The next four games on the schedule against Miami, OH, St. Francis (PA), DePaul and Seton Hall are all very manageable, but after that the schedule gets considerably more difficult.

A 13-day stretch between January 6th and January 19th that includes a home game against cross-town rival Xavier and road games against Syracuse, Villanova and Notre Dame will be a sink or swim stretch for the team.

Many have pointed to the lack of high-caliber players the Bearcats have faced thus far as a reason for their skepticism of the 10-0 start and it’s safe to say that Xavier, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Villanova have no shortage of high caliber players. Until that point though, the jury is still out regarding whether this will be the team to put Cincinnati back in the NCAA Tournament.