The UConn Huskies are quite familiar with Cincinnati as these two teams prepare to meet for the third time this season, for the third consecutive season. But there's always more to learn, so I spoke with Phil Neuffer at SB Nation's UC site, Down the Drive, to find out a little bit more about tomorrow's (2:00 p.m., ESPN2) opponent and chat everyone's favorite topic: AAC hoops.
You can check out my answers to his questions here.
1) Hello, new friend! Looking at your season, it seems like there really aren't any bad losses, does it surprise you that Cincinnati is considered a bubble team?
As much as I want to feign outrage and say Cincinnati should be in no questions asked, I can't. Sure, all losses have come against strong teams. In fact, only two came against teams outside of the KenPom top 50, and those were against AAC regular season champ Temple (twice) and Memphis.
However, UC really missed its chance to get some statement wins, as the best on its record is SMU, a win it was desperately in need of in the regular season finale. Outside of that, the Bearcats' best wins are against some team called UConn and VCU. I think they will make the tourney, but I am not at all surprised that they are on the bubble, especially considering how little respect the AAC gets. In all honesty, winning league games in the AAC doesn't really make as much a difference in the positive direction as losses do the other way.
2) How many NCAA Tournament teams do you think are in the American?
Three is the absolute max without a surprise team winning the conference tourney. I think UC will be in, even if I think it's a bubble team. I'd also pencil in Temple and UConn, but I think all three are ripe for the chopping block.
3) What did the Bearcats do well in their recent win over SMU?
That was a really disgusting game, but that's what UC does. There is no flash, no bedazzle and very little offensive success, especially in games against teams of SMU's caliber.
For the Bearcats to win against teams like that (and I count UConn in that group) they really try to slow the pace and grind. More energy is exerted on defense, throwing everything at ball handlers and protecting the paint, so the offense only has to do just enough to win. That's what they did against SMU. They forced 17 turnovers, outscored the Mustangs 13-2 off those miscues and help Nic Moore and company to 39.3 percent shooting, including a 2-of-12 effort from beyond the arc.
That work just barely made up for what was probably the worst offensive showing of the season, as the Bearcats netted only 29.5 percent from the field and 1-of-19 from 3-point range.
4) So are we playing first to 50 or what?
As I'm sure you and your readers are aware, UC won the two contests during the regular season between these two and by a whopping six total points. Neither team got past 65 in either game. So, to answer your question, yes, I do believe this will be yet another torture chamber masquerading as a basketball game.
It isn't just the fact that UC is 11thin the nation in opponent field goal percentage (38.8 percent) or seventh in blocks (176) or fifth in adjusted defensive rating (92.0), it's also the fact that the offense, while somewhat improved from a year ago, can be so frustratingly ineffective. UC is outside the top 200 in field goal percentage (43 percent) and is tied for 102nd in adjusted offensive rating (107) according to KenPom. Luckily, UConn plays a similar type of game, so Friday's contest is very much like playing against a mirror.
5) How does one break this Cincinnati defense?
You don't. You just have to adapt. The easiest way, if you can pull it off, is make as many 3-pointers as you can get off. The Bearcats have really had trouble guarding the perimeter, especially in comparison to how well they protect the paint. Temple did a really good job of executing that strategy both times they beat them, especially Devin Coleman, who hit five 3s in Philly and four at Fifth Third. If you get hot from the outside, that is a real problem, although the Bearcats have been a bit more 3-point friendly on offense themselves.
A second option is to attack Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis. Both are great help defenders and block shots well, but they can each get a little aggressive and are prone to getting in a bit of foul trouble. If you can keep them off the floor, you'd still have to deal with Coreontae DeBerry, but you'll have easier looks closer to the hoop.
6) What were your takeaways from the two previous meetings between UConn and Cinci?
Other than the several years each game took off my life, my biggest takeaway was that this is the premier rivalry in this conference. These two teams still play in that old Big East style and that is so great to see, or terrible, depending on how much defense thrills you. I was also very impressed with how well UC did containing Hamilton since he went 4-of-22 combined against the Bearcats.
Additionally, I like what I saw out of Sterling Gibbs (objectively speaking). He's a scorer and a 3-point shooter that gave UC problems. Plus, he has to be extra motivated to succeed seeing his former team Seton Hall playing well over in the Big East.
7) Who do you think wins the conference tournament? (Or who would be your second pick behind Cincinnati)
As fun as Temple's run has been, I really don't think the Owls are a team built to win this tournament. I believe whoever wins on Friday in this matchup has to be the favorite. All but one of UC's league losses came on the road, so playing on a neutral court will negate that weakness. UConn just has that March mystique surrounding it, so I would lean towards the Huskies next. (Remember, KenPom has UConn projected as the overall favorite).
If you're looking for a less predictable choice, Houston has been much improved and it has a nice core with Devonta Pollard, Rob Gray and Damyean Dotson. Plus, the Cougars just beat Cincinnati, so that's fresh in my head.
8) If you could pick the location for the next AAC Tournament, what would you pick?
Is Fifth Third Arena an acceptable response? In all seriousness, I think doing it at the Verizon Center in DC would be great. It's so awesome that the Big East Tournament is ingrained in the city of New York and I think the American could at least attempt to replicate that feeling in the nation's capital. Plus, there's the whole American thing.