After dropping two road games against the conference-leading Tulsa Golden Hurricane and a quality Stanford team, UConn took care of business on a two-game home stand against AAC bottom feeders UCF and USF. Now, the Huskies find themselves needing a run to get themselves back into NCAA Tournament contention. It all starts tonight in Cincinnati. The Bearcats, currently projected as a 10-seed in Joe Lunardi's bracketology, are tough to beat at home holding a 10-1 record in Fifth Third arena so far this season.
The last time these two teams met back in Hartford earlier this month, UConn outlasted Cincinnati behind 18 points and 8 assists from Ryan Boatright and solid contributions from Omar Calhoun and Rodney Purvis, who both reached double figures on a combined 10-17 from the field.
Cincinnati is an elite defensive team, holding opponents to 38 percent shooting and not allowing an opponent to score over 70 points yet this season. They have ample length across their front line anchored by the 6-foot-10 center Octavius Ellis and 6-foot-7 forwards Shaquille Thomas and Gary Clark. Cincinnati's starting front court combined for nine blocks and five steals against UConn earlier this season, giving Huskies a clear key to victory in Thursday's matchup- valuing possessions and limiting turnovers inside.
Daniel Hamilton had one of his worst games of the year on that Saturday afternoon against the Bearcats' suffocating defense, scoring just six points while committing five turnovers along with just two rebounds and two assists, well below his season averages. However, the freshman comes into Thursday night's tilt with as much confidence as he's had all season fresh off his second conference rookie of the week award this year. His biggest improvement has been simply his decisive play. He has been more cautious to put the ball on the floor, he hasn't second-guessed himself when he rises for a jump shot, and he has made numerous plays for his teammates, averaging over three assists per game over his last four.
On the defensive side of the ball, UConn's guards should certainly be able to contain Cincinnati's. They are led by Troy Caupain, averaging 9.9 points and 3.7 assists per game. Kevin Ollie's UConn teams have made perimeter pressure a priority for them, and with Ryan Boatright and Rodney Purvis, the offensively-challenged Bearcats should have trouble finding open shots. The same can be said for UConn's offense. Cincinnati held the American's highest scoring offense in UCF to just 46 points this weekend. Their defense is for real, and for UConn to outlast the Bearcats in Cincinnati, they are going to need to capitalize on as many open looks as they can and limit their turnovers. Ryan Boatright had to bail out a struggling offense on Sunday against USF when he scored 28 points, but will need help scoring the basketball against the Bearcats' stingy defense this time around.
Prediction: UConn 62 Cincinnati 58