Wednesday night’s matchup between UConn and Cincinnati will be their final regular season meeting as conference foes, which they have been since UC joined the Big East back in 2005. While they’ve almost never been pretty, games between the Huskies and Bearcats rarely disappoint, and old classics like Ryan Boatright’s buzzer-beater in Hartford and Jalen Adams’ heave in the AAC tournament represent some of UConn’s most exciting basketball from the previous decade.
Cincinnati is also adjusting to life in the post-Mick Cronin era, as Wednesday’s clash marks the AAC debut of new Bearcat head coach John Brannen.
Brannen came to Cincinnati after four seasons at nearby Northern Kentucky, three of which were 20-win seasons. Brannen has done a stellar job of picking up right where Cronin left off, leading the Bearcats to a 7-5 record with losses to the likes of Bowling Green and Colgate. Meanwhile, Cronin, who accepted the UCLA job after it was rejected by nearly everyone major candidate, has the Bruins at 7-6 this season and just suffered a three-point loss to Cal State Fullerton.
The Bearcats welcome UConn at home 11 days after hanging tough in a 77-70 loss to Iowa. The Hawkeyes, ranked No. 18 in KenPom, held on for the win even with a strong performance from Cinci’s senior guard Jarron Cumberland, who posted 18 points on 6-16 shooting.
Cumberland, one of the top players in the American, has struggled mightily this season. While he still leads the Bearcats in scoring, he’s averaging just 13.3 points per game and shooting 27.3 percent from the 3-point line, over 11 percent lower than last season. He’s also averaging a career-high 3.1 turnovers per game and has only had one game all season with an offensive rating better than 100 - an 11-point effort against Drake in November. Outside of that, Cumberland has been solid, albeit unspectacular, but make no mistake - he is still one of the premiere players in the American and his size, strength and skill could give UConn fits all night.
With Cumberland struggling, big man Chris Vogt has been the Bearcats’ most efficient option on offense. The 7-foot-1 big man is averaging 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and serves as a solid shot-blocker (1.3 blocks per game) and offensive rebounder. Josh Carlton and Akok Akok will have their work cut out for them in the post, but between Carlton’s size and Akok’s length, the Huskies might be able to keep Vogt in check.
Outside of Vogt and Cumberland, Keith Williams (12.6 points per game) and Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s cousin, factor in heavily for Cincinnati and serve as the team’s best 3-point threats, shooting 35.7 and 37.8 percent from deep respectively.
Defensively, UConn will have their hands full staying out of foul trouble, as Cincinnati is one of the best teams in country at getting to the free throw line, ranking ninth in free throw rate. While the Bearcats aren’t great at capitalizing on free throws, shooting just 67.1 percent from the charity stripe, it could take Huskies who have been struggling with foul trouble all season like James Bouknight out for long stretches of the game.
Prediction: It won’t be easy, but UConn starts off 2020 with a statement win in their American opener. Christian Vital stays hot after a 23-point performance against NJIT and Akok, Carlton and Vital team up to keep Jarron Cumberland and Chris Vogt in check. Huskies win a tight one, 71-67
How to watch
Where: Fifth Third Arena - Cincinnati, Ohio
When: 7:00 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports
Radio: UConn IMG Radio Network