Having lost four of their last five games, UConn has to face their toughest conference opponent of the season this afternoon as Cincinnati comes to Storrs for a nationally-televised noon game.
Cincinnati is 20-2, undefeated in conference play and hasn’t lost a game since Dec. 9. Their defense is either the best or second-best in the country, depending on how you feel about Virginia, and their offense is pretty solid too. Mick Cronin’s team has made the NCAA Tournament in seven-straight seasons, and they’re essentially a lock to make the field this year too.
The Bearcats’ identity is built around tough, high-motor, physical play. They specialize in offensive rebounds and winning the turnover battle, and both of these priorities help create the baseline for a team that’s difficult to beat. They supplement that with talented players that buy into the team’s goals and with a deep bench, where Cronin doesn’t play anyone in a role that isn’t suited to his abilities.
They have four players averaging over 10 points per game, and there’s only a three-point difference between their top scorer and their fourth-place contributor. Jacob Evans leads the way, followed by Gary Clark and Kyle Washington, and all three have good shooting range. Evans serves as the de facto point guard (they share the ball, but Evans leads in assists), Clark is the top rebounder, and Washington adds height on the defensive interior while spreading the floor on offense. Jarron Cumberland, a sophomore in the well-rounded mold of a Sean Kilpatrick type, also scores 10 points a game.
With eleven players getting into 18 or more games, the Bearcats’ bench is very important too. Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks are the top backup defenders, and Trevor Moore and Cane Broome can shoot the three. Pretty much everyone on the bench plays quality defense, which makes it exceptionally difficult to score on the Bearcats; they can rest their starters at will without ceding any ground to their opponent.
If it’s sounding like this is a scary matchup for UConn, that’s because it is. Cincinnati is a scary matchup for any team, to be fair, but the Bearcats seem specifically built to exploit all of the Huskies’ weaknesses. Their depth can attack UConn’s shallow bench, their affinity for physical play plays into UConn’s propensity to commit fouls, their offensive rebounding can take advantage of UConn’s difficulty at staying in position on defense, and their plethora of 3-point shooters is tailor-made to create opportunities against a UConn defense that has trouble staying with their matchups on the perimeter. The one area where the Bearcats don’t seem to have an advantage is height, but the Huskies have struggled to find a frontcourt rotation that works for them, so it might not even be a category that goes in UConn’s favor.
UConn’s two-game losing streak is unlikely to end this afternoon against Cincinnati, but if they are to win, they’ll have to take advantage of the Bearcats’ few deficiencies. They’ll have to play fast to get Cincy out of their comfort zone, stick tight to their assignments to force tough shots, limit turnovers and fouls, and box out on the defensive glass to prevent second-chance points. That sounds like a lot, and it is a lot, but it’s attainable under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, it appears UConn will have to play almost a perfect game in order to beat Cincinnati.
PREDICTION: Cincinnati 75, UConn 52