Nearly 100 years passed before Ohio State and Cincinnati met in a revival of their in-state matchup last season.
There was no mystery to Chris Holtmann and his coaching staff about what Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin and his players wanted to do, though. None at all. His teams had built reputations as tough, physical, defensive-minded groups. So when the Buckeyes headed west to take on the Bearcats in their first game at the newly renovated Fifth Third Arena, they knew what to expect, executed and returned to Columbus that night with a 64-56 win.
|Cincinnati||Schottenstein Center||8:30 p.m.||FS1|
Just one year later, it would stand to reason that preparing for the exact same team would be even easier. Yet due to an offseason coaching change with Mick Cronin leaving Cincinnati for UCLA and the Bearcats plucking John Brannen from Northern Kentucky, Holtmann felt a heck of a lot more confident in his knowledge of what his team would be up against last year than he does when the two teams tip off the second game of a home-and-home series at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.
“Last year, we were really familiar with Cincinnati,” Holtmann said. “Obviously you could see how those pieces were going to be utilized because you had all the footage from Mick's previous seasons. That will take some feeling out on our part because we're just not sure.”
Rather than Cronin trying to turn games into defensive struggles filled with plenty of offensive slogs, Brannen’s background makes it likely that he’ll have a faster-paced team with an attacking offense promising more production than in recent years. At Northern Kentucky last year, his team had a higher percentage of its offense stem from the transition than Cronin ever had at Cincinnati, per Hoop-Math’s data that goes back to 2010.
Of course, part of the challenge of a first-year coach is figuring out how to mesh a philosophy and style with inherited players. Even Brannen likely doesn’t know exactly what his team will look like on Wednesday night, making it supremely difficult for Holtmann and his staff to prepare.
That challenge is only further exacerbated by Cincinnati's pickups of key veterans in the offseason. Brannen added to Jarron Cumberland, the reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, by landing a quartet of immediately eligible transfers: Chris McNeal (New Mexico), Jaevin Cumberland (Oakland), Chris Vogt (Northern Kentucky) and Jaume Sorolla (Valparaiso).
“You're able to scout them from other programs,” Holtmann said. “But how they're going to be utilized in specific ways is a bit of an unknown. It's a guessing game.”
Much of Cincinnati might be a “guessing game” to Holtmann. But Jarron Cumberland certainly isn’t.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound senior guard 18.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals in 32.5 minutes per game in 2018-19, earning Associated Press honorable mention All-American honors. He enters his final year at Cincinnati as the AAC preseason player of the year.
Cumberland was the only Cincinnati player to score in double figures against Ohio State last year, hitting 7-of-17 shots and managing 22 points despite having to head to the bench relatively early with foul trouble.
This year, he isn’t the only player in his family who concerns the Buckeyes.
His cousin, Jaevin, averaged 17.2 points and 3.5 assists per game at Oakland last year before graduating and transferring to end his collegiate career with a season as a Bearcat. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard shot 42.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from beyond the arc as a redshirt junior last year. The pair of Cumberland brothers will be guarded by Luther Muhammad and a “variety of perimeter players,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann said McNeal, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound point guard, has "added to their offense" as well. He had 9.5 points and 2.7 assists in 23.9 minutes per game with New Mexico last year.
“They have more shooting on their team right now than what they did have last year,” Holtmann said. “When you add an 18-point scorer at the mid-major level from a team that had a really good year in Cumberland's cousin, right then and there, I mean, he's an outstanding player. And then the point guard transfer (McNeal) has added offense to their team as well.”
Holtmann specifically pointed out Tre Scott, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound fifth-year senior forward, as somebody who could impact the game. Scott averaged 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds last year, grabbing 2.3 offensive boards per game.
“When you think about that at the forward spot, he pursues the ball really, really well,” Holtmann said.
Down low, the Bearcats also have a pair of 7-foot, 260-pound newcomers – Vogt and Sorolla – who could challenge Kaleb Wesson and the rest of Ohio State’s frontcourt. Both of them were role players who primarily came off the bench at their prior schools. Vogt averaged 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game last year at Northern Kentucky, and Sorolla managed 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game last season at Valparaiso.
Ohio State Preview
Ohio State's team that takes the court on Wednesday night will be both the youngest team Holtmann has ever coached – seven underclassmen and one senior – and the group entering the season with the highest expectations.
Just like last year, much of what happens this season will rest on the shoulders of Kaleb Wesson.
Now 255 pounds, a 34-pound decrease from what he weighed at the end of his sophomore season, Wesson finds himself in a similar role. He led the team with 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last year, and he’ll likely do the same this year – with more 3-point attempts and fewer fouls, he hopes. Despite the change in body, Holtmann expects Cincinnati to treat him similar to how teams did a season ago.
“I think we'll see tomorrow that they'll attack him, trying to get him in foul trouble early because they understand how important he is for our team,” Holtmann said Tuesday.
Holtmann went with five veterans in the starting lineup – CJ Walker, Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kyle Young and Kaleb Wesson – in the Cedarville exhibition. He didn’t commit to using the same five to open the game against Cincinnati, but they’re the most likely starters.
Given the talent of the Cumberland brothers, Muhammad will be immediately thrust into an important role. Young and the rest of Ohio State’s frontcourt also has a tough challenge with keeping Scott and the two 7-foot centers off the boards.
Much of the intrigue surrounding this year's team centers on the freshman class of point guard DJ Carton, forward E.J. Liddell, forward Alonzo Gaffney and center Ibrahima Diallo, which will make its debut on Wednesday night.
“All four of us have to calm ourselves down because I know personally I would have to calm down when I see all the fans in the stands,” Liddell said.
Carton and Liddell, in particular, shined in the exhibition and will be counted on for heavy roles. They’re top-50 recruits who could eventually jockey for starting roles this season.
The athleticism of Carton allows him to push the pace at will and get into the paint in a way the Buckeyes lacked last year, and Liddell’s old-school game as an undersized power forward (6-foot-6, 236 pounds) has him more college-ready than most freshmen.
“It's going to be a big game,” Carton said. “Season opener. Two very good, talented teams facing off in a really good environment. So it's going to be fun. But I think us four as a group are going to have to play very mature.”
- Gaffney’s dad, Kevin, played for Cincinnati. So, how’s he approaching the game? Gaffney: “He's really excited about the rivalry. I am also. I just want to go out there and kill him, really. He's rooting for us. He's rooting for the Buckeyes, and I'm excited.”
- Ohio State and Cincinnati have not had any conversations yet about continuing this series, Holtmann said. This is the second game in a home-and-home series, meaning there are no others between the two teams scheduled. Holtmann: “We'll see in the future. I'm not sure. We have some outstanding programs in our state, a lot of them from mid-major to now considered high-major programs. I think it's important to play them.”
- Kaleb Wesson believes he’ll be able to keep unnecessary weight off due to what he called a “lifestyle change.” The drop from 289 to 255 pounds included him having to give up some of his favorite foods. Wesson: “They told me I shouldn't be eating sour cream no more, and that's what really killed me. I put sour cream on almost everything. I was sick. I was sick about the sour cream.”
- This is the first of five marquee non-conference matchups. The games can essentially be sequestered into two categories: tough, challenging showdowns and likely blowouts. There aren’t many – or, really, any – plucky mid-major teams on the schedule. Games against Villanova, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia remain ahead on the schedule in the next two months.
- Wednesday’s game, Holtmann said, will be the “most challenging opener” he has ever coached. Holtmann: “I thought Mick obviously did an incredible job, and I think John Brannen is an outstanding coach. They have obviously a terrific team returning and preseason conference player of the year in Cumberland. I think what makes them set up for a terrific year beyond the caliber of players and team they have returning is their additions in the offseason of some older guys.”
How It Plays Out
With five newcomers for the Buckeyes and a new head coach and four transfers for the Bearcats (along with their freshmen), it’s quite difficult to predict how Wednesday’s showdown at the Schottenstein Center will turn out.
It's hard to know just how productive the new pieces will be on their new teams. Based on an improved, lighter Kaleb Wesson, the return of key veterans and the additions of Carton, Liddell, Gaffney and Diallo, the Buckeyes enter as six-point betting favorites. We’re also picking Ohio State to win for those reasons. Confidence level, though? Low.
Prediction: Ohio State 72, Cincinnati 68