The Cincinnati Bearcats roll into Orlando tonight for a pretty important AAC clash with the UCF Knights. The Knights are a very solid, but extremely not sexy basketball team. The Bearcats are extremely solid, but unlike the Knights, they carry some sex appeal. Not because Mamoudou Diarra has a great smile, which he does but that’s neither here nor there, but because of the on court product. Using sex appeal was a horrible choice to compare teams and I should quickly and swiftly get out of this paragraph.
The Bearcats haven’t given us many reasons to worry about anything this season. Sure, there were major problems against Xavier and Florida. Some of those seem to have been remedied and there is also the fact that those games took place over a month ago. There are zero constants in a college basketball season. There are things that can steadily maintain, but any time you are relying on mainly 18-22 year olds to perform in big moments, there are going to be breakdowns. There are going to be peaks and valleys. In the course of 40 minutes, anything is possible. Cincinnati beat down Arkansas Pine-Bluff by 28 points. UC only won the second half by a point. Over the span of 20 minutes, UC was barely better than arguably the worst team they’ll play this season. Of course, I’m completely ignoring any and all context for that example.
A better case would be the kick off to this Florida trip, the Bearcats game at South Florida. South Florida is the worst conference foe UC will face this season and probably the worst UC will face for years to come. That program is at a definite rock bottom. Still, at the halftime intermission, the score was UC 35 USF 33. The Bearcats put together a much better second half to shut the Bulls down before they enjoyed the Tampa hotel experience. My over arching point is that anything can happen when two teams play, even teams with wild talent disparities. Which brings up the theme of this post, what has me worried about the 40 scheduled minutes that are scheduled to be played tonight.
UCF plays elite defense
The Knights rank 4th nationally in defensive efficiency, which is one spot behind the Bearcats. Given that UCF had 83 hung on them by West Virginia, they have been pretty great against everyone else. If you break it down to just league play, the Knights have a defensive efficiency of 79.7, which says a lot about the offense in this league but is outstanding. The Bearcats are in second at 85.6. UCF hasn’t just been the best, they’ve been far and away the best.
The best defensive team according to the current ratings UC has seen was Mississippi State at 18. That game had the major advantage of being at home. It also had the advantage of Mississippi State not being very great! UCF is a much better defense. One big reason is…
Fall is the reason that Gary Clark has trouble in winning defensive player of the year. Being 7’6 is a plus, but his defensive instincts are top notch. He’s grown a lot in learning what to challenge and let go, and also in coaching the UCF defense. He’s a steady hand that completely alters game plans. Everything is funneled to Fall. Of course, he’s got his flaws. He’s not a great rebounder overall, although he’s been killing the offensive glass. His offense is just not there. One of the reasons UC won the first meeting between the teams last season is that Fall had 6 turnovers. Clark and Washington fear no one and are good enough passers to get to the open area. That doesn’t mean they won’t have trouble getting around the big man. He’s a major hurdle and a huge reason why this unheralded team has an elite defense.
BJ Taylor is Coming Back
BJ Taylor is also known as the UCF player who makes the first team all conference, which makes it seem like he’s keeping a Bearcat off that squad. You might remember Taylor from last year’s game, where he single handily won the game for UCF. Taylor scored 27 of their 53 points. He’s really damn good. It’ll be interesting to see how exactly he integrates into the Knight offense, he has missed basically every game. Taylor gives UCF a much needed threat every possession he plays offensively. Taylor used 26% of the UCF possessions in league play last season while hardly ever coming off the floor. Catching him on his return may mean that Johnny Dawkins is hesitant of playing him huge minutes. If Taylor is set, the Knights get that much more difficult.
Winning on the road is hard
While UC has a very nice road/neutral record at 6-2, the hands down four worst performances of the season came away from NKU, which is a very odd thing to say. Buffalo is better than imagined, but the UC effort in that was lacking. We all know Xavier and Florida and Temple. One could very well argue that the best overall effort of the season was against UCLA, which was in Westwood, and I would agree. That is a nice card to hold. Given that the next road game was Temple, that makes it a little more shaky. This won’t be the toughest atmosphere UC will play, that’s X or maybe Wichita or even Moody, but it will be a tough one. This is a place where UC lost a year ago. The Knights have played much, much better at home than on the road. This is a huge game for them.
This next one is going to give fire to all the Mick haterz, but …
UC will play slowly and this game will be unnecessarily tight
Two of the last three UC games have been under 60 possessions, the only exception being against an up and down SMU squad.
UCF plays slower than Cincinnati.
While UCF has only a single game under 60 possessions, they aren’t going much over. They have checked in at 63, 62 and 61. The recipe is there for a slow game. The teams want it slow. In a game like this, with defenses like this, it leaves so much up to chance. These are the games where the random bullshit shot clock running out prayers being answered become back breaking. These are the games where offensive rebounds are soul sucking. These are the games where turnovers make you want to throw your tv controller through the wall.
With all the worry and gloom up top, it makes it seem like I think Cincinnati will lose. I do not think this Cincinnati team will lose. I think after the Florida loss, this team has gained a focus and an energy that we haven’t seen since the Sean Kilpatrick team. You have seniors who don’t want to lose again. Not everyone has this, which helps set this current Bearcat team aside. It’s part of what makes Villanova so good, they have a bunch of players that absolutely refuse to lose, won’t squander possessions and will make you fight for everything. The only difference between Villanova and Cincinnati has been that the Bearcats haven’t had the type of firepower that could carry them once the first option was taken away.
UCF is going to try and take away the 3 point shot. They have been stellar at this all season. That means what is Jarron Cumberland going to give you if he’s not getting looks outside. It means what does Justin Jenifer give you since most of his shots are spot up 3s. What does Evans do in running the show? How do you get Gary and Washington involved? This is the type of game that is almost a preview of what we will see early in the NCAA tournament, should UC not collapse and fail to be an entrant. The challenges are different in league play, but the process is the same. UC is currently projected as a 5 seed and New Mexico State a 12. They have a very similar type of profile to UCF.
While I do expect Cincinnati to come home victorious, I do think this game is the type that will test the resolve. It isn’t the toughest road game remaining. It’s definitely not the biggest. It’s not one you circle on your calendar. It’s not a game you point out and say “That should be fun,” like you do against the name programs, regardless of them being down. It’s almost like a rising mountain of a game in the midst of the unbearably slow roll out of the Cincinnati conference slate. It’s not the toughest challenge, but it’s an imposing one. Teams have conquered UCF, but a single team, Missouri, has won there. And that was a by 3. If UC comes to do the work, this will be a nice win. If they come in thinking they can play hard for 30 minutes like they did against USF, they might be going back to Cincinnati with a loss.