John Brannen either has great success to live up to or insufficient success to avoid. It depends on what month we are in. He’ll be okay with the masses if he wins like Mick Cronin from November to March. UC fans were good with the former coach until the CBS jingle rang out before that first Madness game. After that, fans usually sat in the front row with their arms crossed, expecting a tough judgment.
The tournament is now all that matters in judging quality programs. Four months of satisfaction plus a month of disappointment was ultimately not a lifelong job for Cronin. The only question about Brannen’s attitude is:
How do you get us out of the first weekend?
UC had at least one other option, Cronin’s former top assistant Darren Savino. Savino had been with Cronin for nine years. Last week, Cronin told me Savino should be UC’s next coach. “Darren knows the culture,” said Cronin. “He knows the formula for what works.”
Ironically, the earlier “formula” was likely one reason Savino won’t be the Bearcats’ next coach. Early tournament exits, whose offensive style was far more effective in the regular season, were a common complaint. The three-point field goal has changed college basketball so much that teams who can’t shoot and defend the three are at a disadvantage in March.
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Cronin’s teams generally didn’t have the offensive firepower or creativity they needed right now. Brannen’s words suggested that he can change that on Monday.
These are sweet words to UC fans:
“We’ll accelerate the pace and play faster. Not necessarily shooting fast, but increasing the pace. It’s not about taking quick shots. It’s more about ball movement and player movement, ”Brannen said. He noted that his NKU team ranked 6th nationwide in assists that year.
“We will use the entire court for attack and defense,” said Brannen. Translation: Defensive pressure in court, with the aim of getting the opponents deep into the shot clock. “Ball movement is the key piece,” said Brannen. More music for the ears of Bearcats fans.
Brannen recruited: “Really long, athletic perimeter players,” he said. (That is, six-foot-five / six / seven types with the wingspan of giant birds. Think of the kind of players Jim Boeheim had in Syracuse to play that 2-3 zone.)
Brannen said his favorite stats are (1) percentage of defensive rebound, (2) ratio of support to turnover, and (3) percentage efficiency of field goal. In other words, just give the other team’s offense one shot, take care of the ball, and don’t take any stupid shots.
Brannen, 45, paid a lot of dues and has been a place he ended up all over Ohio where he grew up from. He had been an assistant at five schools at all levels before appearing in Northern Kentucky. He played for Billy Donovan in Marshall and trained with current University of Dayton coach Anthony Grant at VCU and when Grant was the head coach in Alabama.
That UC selected a trainer with local and regional connections should ease the transition. “I’ve been everywhere,” said Brannen. “I recruited New York in the south pretty much everywhere. You keep all of these contacts. You grind it out. It is beneficial to have an idea of what is available in our geographic area. More important (important) is knowing what Cincinnati is bringing. Our city is a big selling point. Same as the university. ”
Brannen even recalled playing summer pick-up games with members of UC’s last Final 4 team, the ’92 group. That included Nick Van Exel, someone who was seen as a candidate for the job that got Brannen. Van Exel could have been a popular choice. Would he be ready (and willing) to take on all of the tedious out-of-court promotional activities that the job requires?
Bringing big donors, talking to civic organizations, showing up at high school stags, etc. The PR part of the job. Brannen inherited an NKU program that needed all the help it could get for its early years in Division I. Brannen knows this game.
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Mick Cronin’s attitude wasn’t the end of an era. It was more of an extension of what was already there. Defense-First’s sweat ethic has been the identity of the Bearcats for 30 years. That will change a little with Brannen. It is a necessary change. Games are no longer won between 58 and 57 on half the pitch.
And (another) hometown guy will lead the change. He spoke to his new players on Sunday evening. UC Athletic Director Mike Bohn then asked Brannen if he knew his way out of the building.
“Yes,” said Brannen. “I’m pretty sure I do.”