Even through 11 games, Cincinnati has already encountered their fair share of hills and valleys. The season began with a furious shooting tear, resulting in some of the highest point totals in the Mick Cronin era, but that offensive showcase eventually gave way as the Bearcats encountered tougher opponents like Nebraska, George Washington, Butler and Xavier. Cincinnati still holds firm at No. 23 in the nation and are 9-2 in the win-loss column, yet the Bearcats are still looking for resume-building wins. Following a 75-59 win over Norfolk State, Cincinnati takes on their next opponent: Virginia Commonwealth.
Meet the Opponent
The Rams have crawled into the national discussion over the past couple years with former head coach Shaka Smart at the helm. With Smart now at Texas, the Rams, out of the Atlantic-10 Conference, are dealing with a period of transition. Still, the Rams are better than their 5-4 record indicates with those four losses coming to No. 5 Duke, Wisconsin, Florida State and Georgia Tech by a combined 27 points. The Rams are playing tough, pressuring, opportunistic defense, ranked T-13th in the NCAA with 95 steals through nine games. Surviving that pressure with be key for Cincinnati if they want to come out of Richmond, Va. with a win.
VCU is led by senior guard Melvin Johnson who scores 19.6 points per game. He does so by shooting just a hair over 42 percent from the field, 45.6 percent from beyond the arc and he is knocking down 90 percent of his free throw attempts. Korey Billbury is second on the team with 10.4 points per game. Billbury averages 5.4 rebounds per game, second on the team behind only Justin Tillman (5.6). JeQuan Lewis, who scores 8.7 points per game, leads the team in assists and steals with 4.3 and 1.9, respectively.
Cincinnati is averaging 12.3 turnovers per game, ranking T-110th nationally in that department, but ball security has been more problematic in games against premier opponents. In both Bearcats losses, turnovers have been a major factor playing against Cincinnati. Against Butler, Cincinnati lost 14 turnovers, compared to the Bulldogs six. Against Xavier, Cincinnati turned the ball over 16 times compared to the Musketeers 10 and were outscored 19-11 off of turnovers.
If Cincinnati wants to win games against teams like VCU or Iowa State over the next couple days, the Bearcats will need to take care of the ball and not allow quick, easy buckets in transition. Against Butler and Xavier, those opportunities came too frequently. With so much of Cincinnati's offense still dependent on their own defensive ball pressure and transition opportunities, the Bearcats don't have a lot of room for error in terms of their own ball security. With the Rams averaging just over 10.5 steals per game themselves, ball security will likely be a deciding factor in this matchup.
Fast Start on the Road
This game in Richmond, Va. is really only Cincinnati's third true road game of the season after playing at Bowling Green in mid-November and at the Cintas Center against Xavier last weekend. Obviously, the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, New York was "away" but I think we can agree that this trip to play VCU is really the third traditional road trip of the 2015-16 season.
In Cincinnati's previous road games against Bowling Green and Xavier, the Bearcats have struggled to slow starts before eventually settling in. Against the Falcons, Cincinnati's talent was too much, allowing them to eventually run away with the game. Against the Musketeers, the slow start resulted in a 18-point deficit in the first half and proved to be too much for Cincinnati to overcome. It seems unlikely that the atmosphere at VCU will be quite like that of the Crosstown Shootout, but nonetheless, Cincinnati will need to avoid turnovers, play solid defense, and not sleepwalk through the early stages of the game to have a chance at a key non-conference win.
How to Watch:
Game Time: 4:00 P.M. EST
TV: CBS Sport Network