It will be a shame, and disrespectful to the AAC if UC is left out of the NCAA tournament. This season has been a learning experience for all the players and just as much for first-year coach John Brannen. It took a while for everyone to get used to each other, and it seemed at times Brannen was losing the team. Jarron Cumberland was hurt, grumpy, ineffective. And nobody knew their role. Then, as the Bearcats ran the gauntlet that is conference play, the seniors stepped up as seniors always do. Tre Scott was playing his best ball, Jaevon Cumberland made clutch shots, and Jarron was dominant to close out games. On senior night last Saturday, it was hard to tell who was more of a wreck, Coach Brannen or his team.
The emotions were so thick the Bearcats couldn’t play basketball for the first half. It was one of the worst halves of basketball UC has played in a long time. The second half wasn’t much better until the snooze alarm went off and suddenly shots fell, the defense made stops, key rebounds were gathered and even foul shots were made. Special props to Mammaudau Diarrafor his clutch foul shooting near the end. That was unexpected. Even Chris Vogt dropped a couple in. But it was the Cumberland boys and Tre Scott who finished things off. After Scott’s tip-in rebound to win the game he and Brannen hugged like long lost brothers. Scott said he had coach’s back, he proved it once again Saturday night. Jarron should have still been in the boot but willed his way into the lane time and time again. Senior toughness and leadership helped UC win another must-win game it looked to be losing.
Since UC has the type of players that stay a couple of years, maybe more, we get to watch their development each year, from skinny freshman to chiseled senior. From role player to leader. Every team is a learning and growing experience for everyone. Most head coaches have worked under one or more influential coaches that shape their styles. This experience trickles down to players in several ways. The best coaches develop their players’ strength and conditioning, help them fit into their roles, keep them focused on studies, teach them to lead and win. Most players either play professionally (many times in other countries, which can be very financially rewarding) or perhaps become coaches themselves. Coaches also help players meet the movers and shakers in a community for careers after they graduate. All coaches do this, and besides the winning fans and boosters love it when players grow into successful, solid citizens.
I can only imagine what Ed Jucker must have gone through coaching The Big O through racism and his other-worldly brilliance. Or winning championships once Oscar graduated. Many of the players on those teams became highly successful local businessmen and community leaders.
Bob Huggins, fittingly, took the development of his players to the extreme. He had a really tough 3 hr. practice schedule, love-hate relationships with his players, coached young men who never had a father and were off in some junior college somewhere playing in obscurity. He took those young men and bulked them up until they were as strong as any player in the country. And their rate of development from shaky juco to all-conference or all-American stud was incredible to watch. There are too many players who improved under Huggs to even name. Except two – Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan. Kenyon could jump out of the gym and run the court, he had obvious potential. He worked very hard and before our eyes turned into a national MVP, a guy who had a 15 year NBA career. It’s hard, even now to believe the player Steve Logan was when he showed up versus the All-American, UC Hall of Famer he became. Under Huggins those types of developmental near-miracles were pretty common.
So far we don’t know how John Brannen can recruit, or how his players will ultimately develop. But his willingness to turn Cumberland into a point guard, and the improvement of Scott, Vogt, Jaevon Cumberland and Diarra gives me hope for the future. Brannen’s an emotional guy but is outwardly calm on the bench. A nice change from Mick Cronin. It looks like Brannen might be able to get his players to want to win as much as he does. I hope he gets the chance in the NCAA tournament. They need a couple of wins in this weekend’s conference tournament.I’m sure the games will be nail biters at the end. It seems that what UC does best.