UConn defeated No. 21 SMU on Thursday, 68-62, adding a marquee win to an NCAA Tournament résumé that looks better every day.
The Huskies matched SMU's physicality right from the jump. Amida Brimah, who has averaged 5.4 personal fouls per 40 minutes in his career, didn't get called for a single whistle in the first half and logged a season-high 33 minutes, and completely dictated the paint against an impressive SMU frontline featuring Jordan Tolbert, Ben Moore, and Markus Kennedy. Daniel Hamilton competently played the role of closer, scoring 7 of his 14 points over the final four minutes.
While UConn was able to step on its opponents' throat—something they've done far too little of this year—the same couldn't be said for Cincinnati, who missed all six of its field goal attempts in overtime in a 70-68 loss at Tulsa.
Less than 48 hours later, UConn (19-7, 9-4 American; #24 KenPom) and Cincinnati (19-8, 9-5 American; #27 KenPom) will meet on Saturday at Fifth Third Arena (4:00 p.m., ESPN2).
As far as the Big Dance goes, UConn appears to be safe for now. The Huskies were an 8-seed in ESPN's latest Bracketology update on Thursday and a 9-seed in CBS Sports' Friday Bracketology.
Cincinnati's outlook is more critical: The Bearcats were part of the "Last 4 In" per ESPN and are now members of the "First 4 Out" per CBS Sports.
Cincinnati should come out very hungry on Saturday, a thought that has obviously passed through Kevin Ollie's mind.
"We can't get drunk off a win against SMU," Ollie said. "We have to stay sober and get in the lab [Friday]."
The Numbers Game
8 vs. 10
KenPom gives Cincinnati a 62% chance of winning on Saturday, predicting a 63-61 outcome. The total number of points sounds just about right—maybe even a bit too optimistic—considering the winning team over the last two games of this series has scored 58 and 57 points, respectively. (Cincinnati beat UConn, 58-57, back on January 28. UConn knocked off Cincy in last year's AAC Tournament, 57-54).
UConn and Cincinnati have two of the top-10 stingiest defenses in America, per Adjusted defensive efficiency- UConn is 8th, Cincy is 10th. This is nothing new for the Bearcats, whose efficiency on the defensive end has now ranked among the top-25 for six consecutive years.
Cincinnati's five conference losses have come by a combined 17 points, including two overtime setbacks. One reason why is the general inefficiency of junior point guard Troy Caupain (11.7 PPG, 4.7 APG), who has shot 4-of-14, 5-of-15, and 5-of-14 in three of Cincy's past four losses.
Over the Bearcats last three games overall, Caupain is shooting 27% (10-37 FG) from the field. He does have the American Conference's 3rd-best assist rate (28.2%- better than Nic Moore's, I might add) but it's imperative that Caupain rediscovers his stroke in order for Cincinnati to start pulling out some of these one-possession thrillers.
Caupain serves as a good representation for Cincinnati as a whole- UC shoots under 44% on field goals, ranking 190th nationally in that department (out of 351 D-1 teams), and that percentage has dipped to exactly 40% over the last four games.
Oftentimes, the Bearcats' best offense is a missed shot, as they rank 21st in the country in Offensive Rebounding Rate. The main catalysts on the offensive glass are 6-foot-8 sophomore Gary Clark (11.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 58.5%FG) and 6-foot-10 senior Octavius Ellis (10.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 57.1% FG).
In the January 28 meeting, Cincinnati outscored UConn 11-5 in second-chance points, which carries even more weight in a low-possession game. On Thursday, UConn won the second-chance points battle 12-5 against SMU, the country's 2nd-best offensive rebounding team. Amida Brimah, Shonn Miller, Danny Hamilton and others must come out with that same rebounding mindset on Saturday.
UConn will be better suited to bang with Clark and Ellis down low with the services of Brimah, who missed eleven games with a broken finger, the last of which was that loss to Cincinnati at the XL Center.
Thursday, maybe Brimah's best as a Husky, was his sixth game back. In the previous five, he averaged only 15 minutes per game- which can be partly attributed to conditioning, but mainly is a result of his chronic foul issues. After totaling just 19 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 13 fouls in those previous five outings, the 7-foot junior exploded for 16-8-5 versus SMU, shooting 6-of-8 from the floor and 4-of-5 at the line.
At shootaround, Brimah decided to remove the tape from his injured right hand, perhaps also mentally clearing his mind from the injury and just focusing on having fun. He certainly accomplished the latter, which resulted in his first KenPom Game MVP since a season-opening win vs. Maine. It's dangerous to try to put a cap on UConn's ceiling when Brimah is at full strength and has fouls to give.