New-Look Bearcats as first-year coach John Brannen has brought in five freshmen, three graduate transfers, and two other transfers. Our preview of Buckeyes vs. UC.
Columbus – Chris Holtmann had to wonder just what Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith had gotten him into when he was standing in front of his bench inside Fifth Third Bank Arena for last season’s opening game against Cincinnati.
It was loud and most of the 12,012 spectators in the sold-out building wanted the Buckeyes to be the main course for the night like a deep-fried turkey. The university was holding a grand reopening of the facility after an $87 million facelift.
Things ended well as Ohio State stayed strong in coming away with a 64-56 victory.
“We’re not in the NCAA Tournament last year without beating Cincinnati,’’ Holtmann said.
It was Smith who strongly suggested to Holtmann three years ago when he was interviewing him to become head coach that more in-state teams should be scheduled. Predecessor Thad Matta wanted no part of the Bearcats, Xavier, Dayton, Akron, Kent State and Ohio University.
The second leg of the home-and-home series is at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in The Schott, and the match-up has had Ohio State’s staff bleary-eyed from watching so much video of its opponent.
Junior center Kaleb Wesson understands the importance of holding serve against the Bearcats.
“It’s an Ohio thing,’’ he said. “I feel like this game is going to show just how much heart we have. It’s an in-state rivalry. You also have Cincinnati bringing that toughness to the game. You are going to have to keep playing with them fouling (because of hard defense).’’
Great things are expected of the Buckeyes with the influx of talent. The newcomers include Iowa’s Mr. Basketball in point guard D.J. Carton, Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 6-foot-6 forward E.J. Liddell, 6-9 forward Alonzo Gaffney of Cleveland and a Florida State transfer in point guard C.J. Walker.
Ohio State is ranked No. 18 in The Associated Press poll and picked to finish runner-up in the Big Ten.
“We’re excited, but we try not to pay attention to all the outside noise,’’ junior forward Kyle Young said. “We stay focused within the team. We’re all super close. We’re all connected. We definitely have team goals. We want to get farther than we did last year. Coming in, no matter what we’re ranked, we haven’t earned anything yet. We haven’t played any games. That ranking, honestly, can’t mean too much to us.’’
The first thing is figuring out the new-look Bearcats. There is video of them from last season, but also clips from Oakland University, New Mexico and Northern Kentucky.
That’s because former Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen was hired after Mick Cronin went for the big bucks and sunshine of Westwood at UCLA and brought in a lot of fresh faces in five freshmen, three graduate student transfers and two regular transfers.
The New Mexico video is for new point guard Chris McNeal, the Oakland clips for shooting guard Jaevin Cumberland and the Northern Kentucky for 7-foot-1 center Chris Vogt.
“It’s an unknown,’’ Holtmann said. “It’s a guessing game in terms of the way they are going to utilize (their players). Their team will continue to be outstanding defensively. They probably have more on us because of the returning system, the returning players and the returning coach. There probably will be some in-game stuff that we’re going to have to talk over as a staff.’’
He called this game “the most challenging opener I’ve been part of.’’
“They have played in nine straight NCAA tournaments,’’ he said. “Last year we were really familiar with Cincinnati. This game will take some feeling out on our part.’’
The Buckeyes had better not take too long to get settled going against the likes of incumbent American Athletic Conference player of the year Jaaron Cumberland from Wilmington, Ohio. He played 23 minutes in last season’s game because of foul trouble, but scored 22 points.
Another familiar face will be 6-8 redshirt senior forward Tre Scott, an offensive rebounding machine.
But what about the new guys?
Jaevin Cumberland, a cousin of Jaaron and also from Wilmington, is a 6-3 graduate transfer. He averaged 17.2 points and 3.5 assists and shot 39.9 percent from three-point range in making 109 treys.
McNeal started 34 games and averaged 9.5 points for New Mexico two years ago. He sat out last season at Tennessee Tech, but switched to Cincinnati when Brannen became coach.
What also concerns Holtmann is Cincinnati’s experience. Jaevin Cumberland is 23 years old and Jaaron Cumberland, McNeal, Scott and Valparaiso transfer Jay Sorolla, a 7-footer from Spain, are 22.
He has said that teams making deeps runs in the tournament have lots of veteran players.
Former point guard Nick Van Exel was the No. 1 choice to replace Cronin by many former players, and they were enraged when Brannen was named.
Northern Kentucky is one of those “directional’’ universities that gets overlooked by the media, but Brannen won 72 games in three seasons and got into the NCAA Tournament for winning the Horizon League in 2017 and 2019. Last season, the Vikings went 26-9.
Brannen was an assistant of current Dayton coach Anthony Grant for three seasons at Virginia Commonwealth and six at Alabama. He also was an assistant for three years at Eastern Kentucky and three at St. Bonaventure.
The words “Ohio River Rat’’ should be stitched on to the breast pocket of Brannen’s game day blazers. He starred at Newport Catholic High School across the river from Cincinnati, and at Marshall.
After the Bearcats, Ohio State’s biggest concern is Wesson staying out of foul trouble. Last season, he was called for 103 fouls for an average of almost three per game and fouled out of five games.
When Wesson got into foul trouble, the Buckeyes went into a scramble mode to hold the fort until he checked back in.
For the record, he had four fouls in an exhibition victory against Cedarville last Wednesday.
“I feel like being able to control the controllable is something I’ve tried to help myself (with) since last year,’’ Wesson said. “If they are calling fouls, I’m going to have to adjust. It’s something I have to work on the entire year.’’
Too much of the load fell on Young’s shoulders when Wesson went out, and he’s a natural forward and not a center. It didn’t help that 6-9 backup center Micah Potter left the team 48 hours before last season’s opener and eventually transferred to Wisconsin.
“It’s super-important to have him on the court, and it’s super-important to have him on our team,’’ Young said of Wesson.
The staff has pored over video of Wesson in trying to cut down on the fouls.
“I think you will see that they will attack him and try to get him into foul trouble early because they understand how important he is for our team,’’ Holtmann said of Cincinnati. “We’ve sat down and shown Kaleb situations where he could have done a better job. He has to continue to get better in that area. But he’s big and he’s aggressive and he’s not going to go through 35 games and not get into foul trouble. He’s a competitive kid, and I don’t want to take away from his competitiveness.’’