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Friends with bennies: Down the Drive discusses the Cincinnati Bearcats

In anticipation of UConn's matchup with Cincinnati tonight we passed along a few questions to SB Nation Bearcat blogger Matt Opper over at Down the Drive. Here are his responses and make sure to head over to Down the Drive for any Cincinnati information you're looking for.

TheUConnBlog: The Bearcats had a convincing win over a dangerous Tiger team on Thursday. What effect will the win have going in to Saturday?

Down the Drive: Mainly it goes a long way to restoring the confidence that was built up over the last couple of weeks of the regular season. The Notre Dame game was a deflating performance to be sure, but I and most UC fans recognized the Irish for what they are, the perfect antidote for this teams defensive prowess. UC goes head over heels to disrupt opposing offenses but Notre Dame doesn't run sets, they have an endless array of offensive options and everything is a read. So there is no set play to disrupt. every time someone tried to short cut a screen Notre Dame would counter with a flair to the corner and a three. It was a sublime performance by the Irish, and one that made me worry if this teams confidence had been shattered for good.

After the poor start to the game Thursday that fear was magnified, but it was all for naught as the defense settled in nicely and UC took firm control of the game with about 10 minutes to go in the first half. So I feel good about where this team is mentally going into the second round game.

TUB: What about Thursday's win do you most want to see repeated on Saturday? What can the Bearcats improve upon?

DTD: It has to be defending the arc. Mick Cronin always builds his defenses inside out. When Yancy Gates is interested, and he has been very interested since the St. John's incident a couple of weeks back, he is a good interior defender. So this team packs the paint and forces opposing teams to win shooting from distance. In general that is a sound strategy, most college teams aren't built to win shooting the trey, they might have a guy or two who can do that, but not a whole team. The problem is that when UC comes up against a team that is stocked with three point shooters they defend the same way and forget to defend the arc. Missouri isn't a great shooting team, they are pretty average, but they have four guys who shoot the three at 35 per cent or better. As a team the Tigers shot 31 percent from three.

The area UC has to improve is hitting the defensive boards. Usually this is an an area that UC dominates but Mizzou rebounded 25 percent of their own misses, that is a ton for a team that is so much smaller than UC is. Part of that is Mizzou crashing the offensive glass hard, but still UC has to do better than that. UC is a team that is built on defense and rebounding, those are the only two advantages the Bearcats have so they need to really dominate in that area. The defense was excellent and UC wound up +6 on the rebounding margin, but I just expected a bit more.

TUB: After a fast start against a weak schedule the Bearcats seemed to stumble in the early part of their Big East schedule before ending with a strong finish, what changed?

DTD: The fast start cranked up the confidence a little bit higher than it should have been. No problem conceding that point. The scheduling didn't help anything, but every Big East school has had a run where they play 4 ranked teams in 5 games. UC had a couple of those, but the first one came right on the heels of the Crosstown Blowout of Xavier. It was @ Villanova, vs USF, @ Syracuse, @ Notre Dame and @ St. Johns. UC went 2-3 in that stretch, that St. John's win in particular did a ton to remind this team that they could compete at a high level in this conference.

TUB: The Bearcats ended the regular season winning four of five but the one loss came at home to UConn, what can they do differently this time?

DTD: Play focused. The lack of focus in the UConn game was tangible and at least a little bit understandable. That game came on the heels of the Georgetown game which for all intents and purposes punched UC's ticket to the dance. Everyone was on a high after that game. the fan base was of the opinion that after five long years of exile in the desert UC was back in the tournament where they belonged. The players saw that all the hard work they put in in front of sparse crowds on bad teams was going to be rewarded. Mick Cronin knew that his job was finally safe and the he didn't have to worry about the Axe that has hovered a few feet above his neck wasn't going to be coming down for a while. So there was a huge sigh of relief through out the tri state and when the Bearcats took the floor against UConn they came out flat as could be and by the time they had their energy level up UConn already had control of things

TUB: Cincy was able to stop Kemba Walker as much as anyone has this year, holding him to 16 points and four assists. However, Jeremy Lamb had one of his best games of the season when the two met (17 pts, 5 boards). If Walker's supporting cast shows up can Cincy still win?

DTD: Technically yes, but I wouldn't be comfortable. If Shabazz and Lamb play at the level they played the Big East tournament at that is a tough match up for anyone. UC has the benefit of having Rashad Bishop who as you said played Kemba as well as one has all year long. Bishop is a gifted perimeter defender, but UC only has one. Mick Cronin can either put Bishop on Kemba and try to limit him again or they can put him on Lamb. Bishop is probably the only guy who can cover both of those guys, but he can only take one of them. So the question is does Cronin put Bishop on Lamb and take his chances with Cashmere Wright or Dion Dixon on Kemba, Dixon might be able to do a serviceable job on #15, but Cash isn't a defender and the prospect of him on Kemba is frankly nauseating. That is really the only question of tactics for the entire game.

TUB: The Bearcats ran some zone against Missouri and the zone has been a killer for UConn so far this year, how much of that can we expect to see on Saturday?

DTD: I would hope so. I was shocked that they didn't play any zone at all against UConn in the first match up. Cronin is a man to man guy, he is pretty hard core about it. But UC is a good defending team in the zone because we have so many long and active guys. Like you said the zone has been effective against the Huskies this year because outside of Kemba there isn't a wide array of perimeter killers. I think that is the way forward, but at best I think it will be half and half, I don't see UC setting up in a zone for the full 40.

TUB: What's your prediction for the game?

DTD: 65-60 UC. Its a total homer pick but I love the way this team is playing right now.