It might be best deemed a play-in game. Or, perhaps better yet, an elimination game.
Whatever the more appropriate term is for UConn-Cincinnati in regards to their NCAA tournament standing remains open for debate, however one thing we do know is that Friday's AAC quarterfinal is sure to be an absolute rock fight.
Cincinnati (22-9, 12-6 American) is faced with the highly unenviable task of attempting to beat UConn (21-10, 11-7) for the third time already this year, having previously defeated the Huskies 58-57 on January 28th and 65-60 on February 20th.
A third such win could seal a bid for the Bearcats, who are projected as a 9-seed in the Big Dance in ESPN's latest Bracketology update.
As for UConn, part of Joe Lunardi's "First Four Out" entering play Thursday, it's unfavorable having to face a team like Cincinnati this early in the conference tournament. In fact, UConn and Cincinnati have the best odds of winning the AAC title per KenPom, despite being seeded fifth and fourth, respectively.
You make the bed you lie in, however. UConn enters the postseason having lost three of its last five games. Blunt as it may sound, the Huskies don't deserve to hear their name called on Selection Sunday if they can't win today.
The Numbers Game
So how does UConn avoid losing to Cincinnati for a third consecutive month?
Step 1 is getting sophomore Daniel Hamilton (11.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.8 APG) going, particularly against a defense that has had his number. In two games against Cincinnati this season, Hamilton has totaled just 10 points on an atrocious 4-of-22 (18.2%) display from the field. He is shooting 2-of-13 on two's in those contests, clearly perturbed by the length and physicality that Cincinnati's frontline presents. Getting KenPom's choice for American Conference Player of the Year in an early rhythm is a major key for UConn, especially for a player with such mercurial self-confidence as Hamilton.
On the other hand, Cincinnati's 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore Gary Clark (10.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG) probably began drooling when he first saw the AAC Tournament bracket. That's because Clark has averaged 13 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3 blocks against UConn this year.
Clark, who ranks among the Top-10 in league play in Offensive Rating (8th), Rebounding Rate (7th in OR%, 6th in DR%), and Block Percentage (4th), is the unsung hero of a Cincinnati frontcourt also featuring Octavius Ellis, among others. He has also worked very hard to develop an outside shot, making 13-of-25 three pointers this year after attempting five threes all of last season.
UConn's best chance to keep Clark in check is with Shonn Miller (12.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 58.5% FG) on the floor. Normally very shrewd as it pertains to averting foul trouble, Miller was limited to just 19 minutes in that February 20 loss.
- UConn's past postseason runs have always been galvanized by a dynamic lead guard, and while Sterling Gibbs is better suited playing off the ball, the Amway Center (site of the AAC Tournament) could prove to be the perfect playground for freshman Jalen Adams. Adams does have some success against Cincinnati, too, posting Offensive Ratings of 114 and 124 against the Bearcatsâto go along with 30 combined points on 9-of-14 shooting.
- Rodney Purvis is coming off a trio of subpar outings, posting sub-90 Offensive Ratings in all three (2-of-11 from "3" during this stretch), but it's worth noting that he averaged 17.5 points—with an average offensive rating of 107—in four AAC Tournament games last season.
- Past March magic may have little effect on the present, but I'll leave you with this nugget: UConn has 5 AAC Tournament wins in the conference's three-year history. The other 9 teams playing in Orlando this week have a combined 7.