Ben Stewart will FIGHT YOU TO THE DEATH for that ball. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
In a cruel twist of fate, UConn might end its season tonight, having gone unbeaten against non-Big East teams all year. Or the Huskies might advance at the expense of their Big East brethren, Cincinnati. Who knows?
When you've got a game between two conference rivals who played each other literally three weeks ago, anything can happen.
In that Feb. 27 game, a 67-59 UConn win, the Huskies were uncommonly red-hot from 3-point range, shooting 10-for-19 and cruising to one of their more comfortable league wins of the regular season.
But that was back when UConn was in the midst of a February funk. In the three weeks since, UConn has won six straight win-or-go-home games, beating four ranked teams, and earning plaudits from the pundits - and tonight's opposing coach - for being the "hottest team in America". Kemba Walker played a nearly perfect game in Thursday's blowout win over Bucknell, and guys like Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi have been playing their best ball of the season.
If the Huskies are peaking now, buoyed by the confidence of a Big East title and a spectacular opening NCAA tuneup, they picked a damn good time to do so. And they'll need to be at the top of their games to repeat their 1995 Sweet 16 victory and get past the Bearcats, and get to the West Regional in Anaheim next weekend.
And if you don't like all of that history (recent and otherwise), then maybe you'll like STORYLINE, as Jim Calhoun's long-simmering feud with Mick Cronin comes to a head. You may not have known that Calhoun and Cronin were feuding, and I don't think they knew it either. But oh boy, are they feuding. STORYLINE.
Below the jump, your full preview to get ready for the non-feud aspects of tonight's game:
The game: #3 UConn (27-9, Big East champion) vs. #6 Cincinnati (26-8, Big East at-large) - NCAA Tournament, West Region Second Round
The place: Verizon Center - Washington, D.C.
The time: approx. 9:40 p.m. (or 30 minutes after the conclusion of Pittsburgh-Butler)
The KenPom favorite: UConn, 57% chance of victory
NCAA Tournament histories: Cincinnati: 25th appearance, 41-23 record. Best result: National Champions (1961 and 1962). Last appearance: 2005.
UConn: 30th appearance, 47-28 record. Best result: National Champions (1999 and 2004). Last appearance: 2009.
Series history: UConn leads, 6-2 (1-0 in the NCAA Tournament)
Last meeting: UConn 67, Cincinnati 59 (February 27, 2011 at Cincinnati, Ohio). Kinda takes the novelty out of the NCAA Tournament when you just played your second-round opponent three weeks ago.
So, tell me a little bit about the Bearcats: In certain ways, Cincinnati is a great matchup for UConn. The Bearcats do play plenty of zone, which is troubling, but their strengths include offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers.
To illustrate, a brief look at Cincinnati's Four Factors:
Effective FG%: offensive, 49.6 (ranked 144th in America); defensive, 45.7 (33rd)
Turnover%: offensive, 18.2 (64th); defensive, 22.5 (50th)
Offensive rebound%: offensive, 38.3 (9th); defensive, 30.9 (106th)
FT rate: offensive, 38.6 (145th); defensive, 34.5 (97th)
UConn is one of the few teams who have matched Cincinnati in the offensive rebounding category all season (the Huskies are 7th, grabbing 39.0% of the available offensive boards.)
The Huskies, thanks to Kemba Walker's mad ball-handling skillz, are one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country (32nd in the country, and tops in the league if you're only counting Big East games).
But Cincinnati does have a very nice, well-rounded team capable of springing the mild upset.
Sean Kilpatrick (39.0% from 3), Dion Dixon (36.6%) and Rashad Bishop (35.5%) can make teams pay from deep, and 6-9 Yancy Gates was in beast mode in Thursday's win over Missouri (18 rebounds, 11 assists). His biggest weakness is his free throw shooting (59% on the season).
The Bearcats also have additional size besides Gates, with 6-11 Ibrahima Thomas making nearly 57% of his two-pointers.
Cincinnati has been a little maligned due to a Charmin-soft out-of-conference schedule (the Bearcats played - and beat - one NCAA Tournament team, Xavier), and due to an 11-7 Big East record inflated by round-robin games with South Florida and DePaul, and due to a lopsided loss to Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament.
But keep in mind Pomeroy rates Cincinnati as the 20th-best team in America (UConn is 14th; incredibly, Cincinnati at 20 is the SEVENTH best Big East team in his rankings. Respect.)
Interesting UConn game notes fact: Jim Calhoun is 41-13 in the NCAA Tournament as UConn's head coach.
Interesting Cincinnati game notes fact: Cincinnati is 25-0 when they lead at halftime this season.
The prediction: Porter has noted that one of the advantages of a tournament like this is that whoever you play in the second game of the weekend will only have about 36 hours to put in a defense to slow down Kemba Walker. Unfortunately, Cincinnati has already worked on stopping Kemba before, and though they couldn't quite get it done the first time, I am (and Porter is) uneasy about giving someone a second chance so soon.
That being said, there aren't many teams who could have beaten UConn Thursday night, and if the Huskies continue their lights-out play, they probably should win. But that's no given.
The Huskies will need Jeremy Lamb to score, they'll need Alex Oriakhi to battle Gates to at least a draw, they'll need to use the advanced zonebusting techniques they developed in MSG. And Kemba will have to be Kemba.
Frankly, I think the winner of this game is taking out San Diego State (assuming they've gotten past Temple). These are two very, very good teams.
UConn is undefeated in games at neutral sites and undefeated in tournament games, and I have faith that those streaks will continue.
The crucial factor, as always: Cincinnati has no Kemba Walker. Advantage, UConn.
UConn 69, Cincinnati 64