Mick Cronin knows college basketball is changing and he has to change with it. The Bearcats of 20 years ago wouldn’t win as much today. The old Big East “rock fights,’’ as Cronin calls them, have been replaced by daggers from 22 feet. If you can’t make threes now, if you can’t spread the defense and make open shots, you won’t win. Try winning a game 54-53 today.
Cronin understands that. What he doesn’t completely understand is how the perceptions of his program haven’t changed in at least 20 years. He says that makes recruiting today’s players harder than it should be.
“Hard, tough, inner-city guys,” Cronin says, not without disdain. “That’s the perception of our program (still). The connotation is, we’re not an academic school. But we are an academic school. We don’t get the credit for the academic school this place has become.
“We fight that stigma that we only recruit tough guys. Interview our guys, tell me how hard and tough they are. Kyle Washington, Jacob Evans and Gary Clark were not hard and tough guys. They’re the nicest guys in the world.”
(Cronin’s right about that. The same would apply to lots of other Bearcat basketball alums, including familiar players such as Sean Kilpatrick and Troy Caupain.)
Today’s college game requires versatile players who can shoot the three. The stereotypical UC player didn’t usually fit that mold. So long as that stereotype exists, it will be harder for UC to get the players it needs.
Cronin opened this box, so we might as well spill the contents. According to Mick, recruits and their families living outside the Tristate still see UC as a landing place for African-American players from sketchy backgrounds, who aren’t interested in learning beyond the court.
Fair? Of course not. Never was. Stupid? Oh, yeah. Always.
“The stereotypes (surrounding) the colors of people’s skin,” Cronin says. “That does affect recruiting.”
Cronin says opposing coaches still recruit negatively, using dated perceptions. “You get involved with a kid, whatever color he is, he’s a really good player and student. The competition says, first thing, ‘You won’t fit in at Cincinnati. They play too hard, they got tough guys.’
“I’m laughing, not crying. Recruiting is the most competitive thing I’ll ever experience. Anything that can be used against you will be. We’re not the Cincinnati of the ‘90s, (but) they don’t see it that way.”
It’s easier to defeat the perception if a recruit lives nearby, which was why selling Jarron Cumberland on the Bearcats was less of a chore. Cronin says Cumberland was able to spend time with the UC players and see them for who they were, not for who they were perceived to be.
“A kid goes to an elite high school,” Cronin says. “A prep school, say, somewhere that academics are very important. Where do they want their players to go?”
Roll out the list of usual suspects: Duke, Michigan, Stanford.
“Tre Scott (current Bearcats forward) graduated in three and a half years. He’s got as much character and intelligence as any kid I’ll ever coach. I’ll put him up against any kid on this campus. But you see him run and jump, you see him catch a lob. . . “
The inference was obvious enough. “(We’re) trying to break that barrier down,” says Cronin.
His team has overachieved this year. Justin Jenifer has bloomed as a point guard. He leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and in three-point shooting percentage. Keith Williams has emerged as a scorer. Nysier Brooks’ semi-skyhook has been a revelation.
Cumberland could start for anyone. He’s the sort of versatile player we’re discussing here. He can shoot the three (fourth in the league in percentage), he can create shots for his teammates, he can drive and score. He’s exactly the sort of player UC needs to maintain its string of March appearances.
The Bearcats are averaging slightly more points a game this year than last, even after losing three of their four top scorers, two of whom have played in the NBA this year.
Just as these Bearcats aren’t those Bearcats of decades ago, the university itself has changed. Cronin would like that word to get out. “We don’t get the bang for that buck yet,” he says. “The 45-year-old parent (of a recruit) doesn’t see it.”
Cronin is keeping up with the changes in the game. He’d like the changes in his university to receive the same attention.