After ugly ECU loss, can Cincinnati basketball avoid another late-season collapse?

CINCINNATI – The story is not hypothetical. The 2021-22 Cincinnati Bearcats were 17-9 (7-6 AAC) in mid-February before being beaten 75-71 at home by Temple. It was the first of five straight losses to end the regular season and a bitter end to head coach Wes Miller’s first year.

On Wednesday night, the 2022-23 Cincinnati Bearcats traveled to East Carolina — the program’s final visit to Greenville, NC before they join the Big 12 next season — with a record of 17-9 (8-5 AAC). Cincinnati lost 75-71 and blew a 16-point lead with nine minutes left in the second half. Four regular season games remain.

It was the worst loss of the year for the Bearcats. Granted, November’s loss to Northern Kentucky by just 11 points in the second half may have hurt many UC fans more deeply, but then again, that was only the fourth game on the schedule. According to NET Rankings and KenPom, Wednesday’s failure was the most disappointing and debilitating yet. The Greenville haunted house provided Cincinnati basketball with a final dose of agony.

As brutal as it was, the more crucial reality is what comes next. Cincinnati desperately needs to prevent a repeat of last year’s late-season collapse, a potential parallel that felt increasingly ominous as the Pirates pushed back in the final minutes and the Bearcats withered on both ends of the floor. This team is better than last year, a claim backed by both the metrics and the eye test (Wednesday night notwithstanding), but so many of the problems that plagued them a season ago have returned: an overconfidence in 3-pointers, an inability to attack and create on offense, inconsistent defensive focus allowing easy lanes to hoop and being hit on the glass.

Some of it – maybe most of it? – is due to health issues, most notably the absence of Viktor Lakhin, who has missed his second straight game since suffering an ankle injury against Tulane. Cincinnati was also without John Newman III all season and Rob Phinisee for most of the season. They are the two best defenders on the team. But Lakhin is UC’s leading rebounder and shot blocker and third-top scorer, and he’s the only consistent frontcourt presence on either end. Along with Landers Nolley II, he’s the most notable difference from last year’s roster, with the ability to score goals and direct action through him in the post or pick-and-roll, especially when the offense flatlines. His absence has significant repercussions. Cincinnati hasn’t been the same since he hobbled off the floor in New Orleans, and it likely won’t be until he returns.

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But we’re also not talking about a conference championship contender struggling to stay atop the table without a key player, or an undermanned bubble team struggling for quality wins ahead of selection Sunday. This was a 16-point lead in the second half against a .500 ECU squad with a first-year head coach missing his own top scorer in Javon Small for the first time. The Bearcats had nothing to do with screwing up this game, with or without Lakhin.

That’s the root of the anger and disappointment for the fans, as well as those in the dressing room. The main blow against this team for much of the season was their struggles in big games against high profile opponents. There has been progress along the way, however frustrating and incremental it may have felt, something Bearcats fans could point to as the next benchmark the program needs to clear. Wednesday night, however, was a faltering punch in the stomach for a hopeful fanbase, but caught in a confusing Venn diagram of optimism, outrage and apathy.

A lot went wrong. The Pirates defeated Cincinnati 26-6 in the last nine minutes, including a 7-0 run to finish. ECU made eight of his last 12 shots from the field, six of them layups; the Bearcats missed nine of their last 10, seven of them 3-pointers. East Carolina passed Cincinnati 46 to 27, including 19 offensive rebounds for 17 second chance points. UC didn’t call two of its timeouts until it was in the last 30 seconds. An already short bench offered no answers or relief from nasty troubles.

Of course, it brought out the knives for Miller. Some of the post-game criticism was justified and genuine. Some of this was caused by Twitter scares and gambling. Still, it got noticeably louder.

The challenges and shortcomings Miller inherited have since been well covered, and while they shouldn’t shield him from judgment, they shouldn’t be glossed over either. The same goes for the contract extension Miller signed in December, which all but guarantees that he’ll be the Bearcats’ head coach for the next few seasons. Any reasonable, bona fide criticism or discussion of the direction of the program may question Miller, but no reasonable determination can be made to fire him, capitalized or not. The last thing UC men’s basketball needs right now is another coaching change and cultural rebuild. Miller has a plan and a vision, some of which he’s already executed quite well. The aspect on the pitch will take time. He deserves the chance to pull it off, and he’s going to get it no matter how loud the social media saber-rattling may get after the loss.

Not that it makes the ECU defeat any easier to digest. You don’t have to count every drop to know it’s raining. Good teams make adjustments when things are going sideways — on the field, on the sidelines, in the huddle. But all too often these Bearcats lose their composure and fall into bad habits as the storm builds up and another sizable lead is squandered. Sometimes they’ve managed to hold or reverse the momentum just enough, like in away wins against SMU or home wins against UCF and South Florida. But then there are also the losses to NKU, Tulane and now ECU – games Cincinnati could and should have won but didn’t.

And yes, the Big 12 is upon us, and the competition won’t be nearly as lenient.

One of the greatest things this team has to offer is the progression and improvement compared to last season. Losing to East Carolina took some of the air out of that balloon. It didn’t derail the overall run — this wasn’t an NCAA tournament team suffering a jarring upset — but the difference between a strong finish or a repeat of last year could be the difference between a NIT berth or an early offseason . That feels like a crucial distinction for a team still searching for their identity, and why Wednesday night’s result felt so frustratingly familiar. It was a stark reminder of how far this program has yet to go, not to mention how important Lakhin has become to this mission.

All is not lost. A bad game should never be a referendum on a team, manager or season. These Bearcats can still bounce back, end the year strong and carry that progression into the conference tournament, NIT and beyond. But either way, it won’t be hypothetical much longer.

(Photo: Peter G. Aiken / Getty Images) After ugly ECU loss, can Cincinnati basketball avoid another late-season collapse?

Russell Falcon

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