The Big 12 Conference is coming. The University of Cincinnati is set to join the ranks of the Power Five conferences in less than nine months, when it heads to the Big 12 on July 1, 2023. But that’s down the road for the Bearcats.
Cincinnati’s immediate future includes the 2022-23 college basketball season, its last in the American Athletic Conference.
The Bearcats on Thursday, 25 days before both the men’s and women’s teams open their seasons (Nov. 7), sat down for their final session of virtual AAC Media Days. Men’s basketball coach Wes Miller, whose team was picked to finish third in the conference this season behind preseason favorite Houston and projected second-place finisher Memphis, said success in his second campaign at Cincinnati will depend on how much his players are willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team.
“The teams that separate in college basketball, they sacrifice for each other and they sacrifice for the name on the front of the jersey,” he said. “For us, every day it is going to be about development and growth. We’re not going to get consumed with things we can’t control that are going to happen tomorrow. We’re not going to get consumed with things that happened yesterday that are over. We’re going to obsess about today and we’re going to obsess about sacrificing for the team first.”
For the Bearcats, who finished eighth in the AAC a season ago (18-15, 7-11), that sacrifice needs to start on the defensive end, Miller said. The 39-year-old coach’s teams pressed during his tenure at UNC Greensboro (2011-21). That didn’t happen much in Miller’s first season at Cincinnati. Miller said it wasn’t that he didn’t want to press more last season, he just didn’t have the personal right to do it.
“We just didn’t feel like the way the roster was made up last year that it made sense to do some of the things we’d done for the six, seven years previous,” he said.
That’s not the case this season. The Bearcats got faster, deeper and more athletic in the offseason thanks to the arrivals of Old Dominion transfer forward Kalu Ezikpe, Memphis transfer guard Landers Nolley II and Indiana transfer Rob Phinisee. Those additions have allowed Miller to bring back the defensive press.
“We’re adding a little more full-court press, three-quarter-court press,” graduate wing John Newman III said. “I think last year we were trying to figure so much out that he (Miller) kind of left that out. We needed to focus on the basics and building the foundation of our defense.”
Ezikpe, Nolley and Phinisee are all in their fifth year of college basketball. They’re also versatile and athletic enough to guard multiple positions. Newman said he recognizes the value in that.
“Rob, he’s one of the best defenders at the guard position that I’ve played with since I’ve been in college,” Newman said. “Landers, he can make plays. I always knew he could shoot it. But just being at practice every day, seeing the way that he creates for others and just seeing his IQ of the game, it’s something I didn’t know. And then Kalu is just a beast. He’s physically imposing. He’s got a good game. He can play on the perimeter a little bit. I think every guy has brought something to the table that I’ve been impressed with. I’m excited to get it rolling here.”
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A new year for the Cincinnati women, too
Entering their fifth season under head coach Michelle Clark-Heard, the Cincinnati women’s team is looking to rebound from its 11th-place finish in the AAC (11-17, 4-11) and first-round exit in the AAC tournament last season.
Like Bearcats men’s graduate guard David DeJulius, Cincinnati women’s junior Jillian Hayes earned a preseason second-team All-AAC selection. The former Loveland High School standout was the only Bearcats women’s player to start all 28 games last season, leading the team in points (11.5) and rebounds (6.8) per game. She also led the team in steals (2.2) and blocks (1.4).
Clark-Heard said her plan for the 6-foot-1 Hayes this season is to move from guard to forward and play more inside.
“I think the most important thing is her growth,” Clark-Heard said. “The ability to transform her body and switch positions. She went to the four spot, so I’m really excited about how hard she’s worked to really just come in every single day from Day 1 to bring everything she needed to to the table to help us figure out how to get better and better on a daily basis.”
Cincinnati runs a bulk of its offense through the power forward position. Former Bearcats standout IImar’I Thomas broke several program records in that spot. Clark-Heard said the player at that position is like the “other coach and the leader on the floor.” Hayes will be that player for Cincinnati this season.
Hayes said she’s looking forward to the challenge of leading the Bearcats both on and off the court.
“Transitioning into the four, I’ve just worked on being more consistent and really just listening to my coaches and allowing them to just guide me through this new position,” she said. “Really just being more consistent in everything that I do.”