Cincinnati Bearcats: 11-3 (2-0 American)
Interim Head Coach: Larry Davis
When and Where: 11:00 AM ET, XL Center, Hartford, CT
TV: ESPN2, with Mike Patrick and Len Elmore
Preview: Though many of the names and faces and faces have changed, Saturday's contest against the Cincinnati Bearcats should seem very familiar for Husky fans. Despite Cincinnati losing their leading scorer in Sean Kilpatrick, front-court starters in Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles, and head coach Mick Cronin to a non-life threatening illness, they have not lost their signature toughness and defensive tenacity that they have been known for since Bob Huggins was their head coach. Holding opponents to a league-best 54.1 points per game and to a 42% field goal percentage, good for 15th in the nation, they are a team that relies heavily on its stout defense.
It's safe to say that we cannot expect the prettiest basketball in this matchup, which is just fine for UConn. We have played elite defensive basketball throughout the season, but things have really picked up in the last two victories with the tremendous play of Amida Brimah protecting the rim. By the last ten minutes of both wins against Florida and USF, neither team could score in the paint, let alone get a shot up. To me, Brimah has been our MVP in these last two victories and has shown an increasing amount of intelligence and discipline on the defensive end as the season has moved forward.
Offensively, Cincinnati does not shoot the basketball very well but has a balanced scoring attack, with its top four scorers averaging between 7.6 and 9.9 points per game. They have 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game, and two of their bigs, Octavius Ellis and freshman Gary Clark, each average over 7 rebounds per game. To put this in perspective, Kentan Facey , the Huskies' leading rebounder, is at just 6.6 per game. The Bearcats don't shoot threes all that well, though their biggest threat from deep is Farad Cobb off the bench, who has made 21 of his 66 attempts this season. The 6-foot-10 Ellis will draw Amida Brimah in what is possibly the most enticing matchup of the day.
A few keys for UConn to secure a victory are rebounding and solid minutes from the bench players. In the four games Brimah has led the Huskies in rebounding, UConn has won. Facey and Hamilton have certainly been our most consistent trash collectors, with Hamilton at second in the conference in defensive rebounds and Facey at seventh in offensive rebounds, but UConn is at its best when Brimah can stay on the floor and stay aggressive.
Besides rebounding, UConn will once again need production off its bench to spark what has been a lackluster offense this season. Omar Calhoun is playing his best basketball since the Spring of 2013 and must continue to stay aggressive. Terrance Samuel is looking increasingly comfortable in his larger role this season, and even Rakim Lubin provided a surprising spark off the bench in Tuesday's game against USF in what was a big day for him. We know Cincinnati will certainly be fresh with their depth throughout the game which makes it all the more important to see success from UConn's reserves.
Conference play has officially begun, and if UConn wants to continue to boost its resume as well as keep itself in the running for the regular season AAC crown, a home game against another top team in the conference in Cincinnati is nearly a must-win. We must keep in mind that this is Kevin Ollie's first year coaching without Shabazz Napier on his squad. This is a team filled with youth and still has a long way to go, but I think all of us here at The Uconn Blog and around Husky Nation can feel this team turning into one to be proud of when it matters most.
Prediction: UConn 56, Cincinnati 52