If you're not too busy freebasing Cincinnati and Nippert Stadium hype this week, you might have noticed that Cincinnati finalized its men's basketball conference schedule yesterday. While not as exciting as the release of the non-league slate, the opponents are all set so it's just figuring out where they fit into the calendar, it is still nice to have an entire road map for Cincinnati's quest for an American Athletic Conference title.
After a tough non-conference schedule that features VCU, Iowa State, Butler and Xavier, Cincinnati will continue to test itself against excellent competition, as the AAC had five teams with at least 20 wins last season. One such team was Temple, who the Bearcats begin league play with four days after Christmas at Fifth Third Arena. The Owls, led by Fran Dunphy, went 26-11 last season and 13-5 against conference competition. Cincinnati split its matchups with Temple last season, winning 84-53 at home and losing 75-69 in North Philly.
The battle with Temple begins a two-game homestand for the Bearcats, who face Tulsa on Jan. 2. Tulsa went 23-11 and won 14 games in league play last season in its first year under Frank Haith. The Bearcats only played Tulsa once, but, as Mick Cronin squads tend to do, they ground out a 56-47 win on the road.
After facing Temple and Tulsa, the Bearcats will pack their bags and head to Dallas for a run-in with defending league champion SMU. The Mustangs went 27-7 and finished with a 15-3 record in league play last season. Defending American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Nic Moore is still hanging around, so this will be a key clash. Cincinnati showed no fear last season against the Mustangs, sweeping them in two games.
The same pomp and circumstance can't be reserved for USF, which Cincinnati plays next in Tampa. The Bulls stumbled their way to only nine wins, including three against AAC foes. Cincinnati didn't seem to realize the Bulls were so horrendous, as they escaped with just a 63-58 victory in the one and only meeting of the campaign.
Houston is next on the schedule, with Cincinnati hosting the Cougars on Jan. 13. Houston wasn't much better than USF in 2014, finishing a game ahead of them in league play. The Bearcats beat the Cougars by at least 10 points in both meetings last year.
Following the home clash with Houston, Cincinnati gets a road rematch with Temple before returning home to face Memphis and Tulane.
Memphis was supposed to contend for the AAC crown last season, but finished a disappointing 18-14 overall, including a 10-8 record in conference tilts. Cincinnati lost to the Tigers on the road (63-50) but took them down in the regular season finale at Fifth Third (77-65).
Tulane was a feisty team last season and actually beat Cincinnati on it's home floor on a last second 3-pointer. The Bearcats avenged the loss later in the year, but a setback to a 15-16 squad was a blemish on the resume.
Cronin's crew will have to avoid looking past Tulane, as the next opponent in line is Connecticut, which broke hearts across the Queen City when it booted the Bearcats out of the American Athletic Conference tournament on the back of a Ryan Boatright buzzer beater last spring. The Bearcats play at UConn on Jan. 28 and then host the Huskies on Feb. 20.
From there, Cincinnati hosts USF and visits Memphis before facing UCF on the road. It is the only meeting of the year with the Knights, who Cincinnati defeated twice last season by a total of 33 points in two games.
We'll get to say 'swashbuckling' and other Pirate-related terms on Feb. 13 when Cincinnati hosts East Carolina. The Pirates lost to the Bearcats by 21 points at Fifth Third and then smothered them in a 50-46 win later on last season. However, they were far from a dominant team (14-19, 6-12 AAC).
There are no new opponents from there, with the rest of the schedule featuring at Tulsa, versus UConn, at East Carolina, at Houston and a regular season finale against SMU. Fifth Third will be pulsing for that one, especially if it becomes the deciding game for the regular season title.