The time has come. After a longstanding rivalry that dates back to 2006 in the Big East (RIP), this is the final conference game that UConn will play against Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been a team that every UConn fan has loved to hate since the Husky faithful first laid eyes on Mick Cronin, and given that Cincinnati has won eight straight games in this series, it will not be hard to say good riddance to them.
As is, it looks like the Bearcats (15-7, 8-2 AAC) will have the upper hand in this matchup. In back-to-back games, they’ve beaten Houston and Wichita State, who are clearly the other two best teams in the AAC. They have a stingy defense and a handful of players who can consistently knock down jumpers from three. More to the point, they also crushed the Huskies back in January.
UConn (12-10, 3-6 AAC) has had to rebuild since then, with a season-ending injury to Tyler Polley and a shakeup in the backcourt rotation, and the Huskies are a different team than they were in their last game against the Bearcats. In the past month, every UConn loss has nonetheless been within a single possession in the final minute of the game, and the Huskies have rattled off two big wins against Temple and Tulsa. Those aren’t exactly the conference’s elite teams, but it shows they’re on the right path, and their improvement will be measured by going against the NCAA Tournament-bound Bearcats.
As expected, Cincinnati’s leader has been Jarron Cumberland all season, and he’s flanked by inside-out guard Keith Williams (who is essentially their version of Christian Vital, just a few inches taller), and Chris Vogt, a 7-foot center John Brannen brought with him from Northern Kentucky. These three provide the majority of the scoring, while the other starting lineup mainstay Tre Scott is the team’s best and most versatile defensive player.
On the other side of the court, the UConn freshmen have stepped up their play more recently, with James Bouknight establishing himself as a leader of the team, Akok Akok turning into an excellent defensive player, and Jalen Gaffney getting much more comfortable within this offense. The frontcourt has gotten more consistent, with Isaiah Whaley and Sidney Wilson finding their roles and succeeding within them.
Whether that alone is enough to top the Bearcats is something the team will have to work on. While Christian Vital has been consistent and is still one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders, he hasn’t broken out on offense the way many expected him to, and Alterique Gilbert has seemed to have one bad game for every good one this season. To his credit, Gilbert has reacted well to his role coming off the bench, and Vital remains one of the toughest players in program history, but UConn might need more from its upperclassmen to beat an experienced team like Cincinnati.
Prediction: The Huskies hang tough, and take advantage of Cincinnati’s struggles on the road. While this one is still a close loss, this one isn’t because of mistakes down the stretch, and rather just getting beaten by a more experienced team. Cincinnati 70, UConn 68.
HOW TO WATCH
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
When: 12 noon
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network