The Huskies (10-6, 1-2 AAC) broke a team-wide shooting slump on Thursday night for their first conference win of the season, and hope to continue their hot streak into a contest against a team known for its punishing defense. The Huskies used outside shooting and bench depth to beat a disciplined SMU team, and now will have to do the same against a Bearcats squad that combines its discipline with skill and physical play.
Cincinnati (13-3, 2-1 AAC) played a strong non-conference schedule but has struggled so far in conference play, losing to AAC bottomfeeder East Carolina and needing overtime to defeat an unimpressive Tulsa side. That’s despite their underlying metrics suggesting the Bearcats are clearly the best team in the conference, and a borderline top 25 team nationwide.
As is expected from Cincinnati, it starts with a swarming defense that doesn’t allow any easy shots. The Bearcats hold opponents to an incredibly low two-point field-goal percentage, and their defense is designed to make sure nobody can get open from three. They don’t foul often, but when they do, it’s typically a center on the inside—someone unlikely to make both shots. Oh, and they take care of the defensive glass. And they grind the game to a halt, a tactic employed by several AAC teams, but with the perception they’re doing it not to keep themselves in the game, but to wear down opponents.
This has been Mick Cronin’s defensive gameplan for years, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. At least as long as it keeps carrying Cincinnati to an annual NCAA Tournament berth. What’s different this year is that the Bearcats lack a true defensive standout; while the entire team fills a purpose and there are no weak links, there’s nobody on the roster who’s clearly going to be a capable defender in the NBA, a departure from the formidable recent Bearcats teams.
And maybe that’s why the Bearcats haven’t looked quite as fearsome this season. Maybe it’s last season’s brutal second-round collapse against Nevada revealing some holes in the prototypical Cincinnati game. And maybe it’s because the offense just doesn’t look quite that good this year.
The offense is far from bad, of course, and it’s probably above average. But Cincinnati isn’t a good-shooting team, and that limits an offense more than anything else. The Bearcats give themselves plenty of extra opportunities by limiting turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, but it takes those extra opportunities just to score, as their shooting percentages just aren’t impressive. In fact, they’re pretty average. And while leading scorer Jarron Cumberland and three-point specialist Justin Jenifer can catch fire from outside, the Bearcats don’t have any other options from beyond the arc.
Of course, being so good at ball control and offensive rebounding is a combination of skills any team would kill to have, but it seems Cincinnati has to do so out of necessity this year. That’s a good sign for the Huskies, who showed against UCF—albeit in a loss—that they’re capable of keeping great rebounding teams away from missed shots.
Repeating that performance, while retaining some of the sharp shooting from Thursday’s win, will be the key for UConn in tonight’s game. If the Huskies can take advantage of the limitations of running Cronin Ball with a less-talented squad, they’ll be able to even their conference record.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: Where do they break apart a rigid Cincinnati defense? Do we see unconventional lineups and frontcourt rotations? Do they try to attack certain players one-on-one?
When Cincinnati has the ball: At 6-foot-5, but often playing as a shooting guard, Cumberland presents a mismatch in the Bearcats’ favor—who guards him? Do the Huskies go to a zone defense in stretches—especially if Cumberland and/or Jenifer are off the floor—as they showed in the SMU win? Does Sidney Wilson continue to emerge as the bench’s defensive specialist?
How to watch
Where: Fifth Thirds Arena, Cincinnati, OH
When: 8 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network