Cincinnati suffered another heart-wrenching loss earlier this week to a ranked opponent, this time falling to the undefeated SMU Mustangs and pushed the Bearcats win-loss record to 11-5 on the season with a 1-2 record in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati looks to earn another conference win against the 3-13 (0-3) USF Bulls.
Meet the Opponent
USF is 3-13 and, unfortunately for them, the scores haven't really been close defeats since back in November. Their three wins have come against Albany, Savannah State and Jacksonville, but the Bulls have dropped their last five with their closest loss during that stretch coming in a home loss to Houston by six points. Last week, USF lost to UCF, 75-64.
The Bulls don't score a lot, only averaging 63.8 points per game, which ranks No. 327 nationally, but they do spread out the scoring responsibilities. Freshman guard Jahmal McMurray paces the Bulls, averaging 13.4 points per game, but isn't terribly efficient about it, making 38.3 percent of his field goals and 32.4 percent of his threes. Sophomore guard Roddy Peters averages 9.8 points per game and leads the team with 3.5 assists per game and one steal per game. However, Peters also turns the ball over at the team's highest clip with 3.9 turnovers per contest. Junior forward Chris Perry contributes 9.4 points per game and seven rebounds per game. Angel Nunez, Jaleel Cousins and Nehemias Morillo average 9.3, 8.9 and 7.7 points per game. Counsins, who plays at center, leads the team with 8.5 rebounds per game for the Bulls.
Cincinnati should win this game. The Bearcats, despite their five losses, are clearly the superior team to the Bulls. Cincinnati shoots the ball better (45.2% FG, 70.3% FT, 37.1% 3P%) compared to USF (41.5% FG, 66% FT, 26.5% 3P%) and the Cincinnati defense, final minute aside, played an explosive SMU team tough in a 59-57 loss. USF is not nearly as explosive and their inability to convert three-pointers means they may not be able to take advantage of the weaknesses in Cincinnati's suffocating zone.
That said, Cincinnati fans felt similarly only a couple weeks ago when the Temple Owls visited Fifth Third Arena and came away with a 77-70 win over the Bearcats. That game wasn't supposed to be in question either, yet Cincinnati lost their focus and didn't put away the inferior team. The Bearcats will need to start fast and not let up against a Bulls team that frankly doesn't have the weapons to challenge Cincinnati.
Who's the Closer?
Cincinnati's five losses have come in close games against good teams where the Bearcats seemed unable to find that key basket late or failed to make that important defensive stand when they absolutely needed it. They have been lacking that killer-instinct to finish the game on their terms and part of that is because Cincinnati is lacking a player who wants to take over the game.
Farad Cobb and Troy Caupain are doing everything they can to be those star contributors down the stretch and Gary Clark is chipping in 9.8 points per game as well, but what has happened to Ellis? Ellis is currently averaging 9.4 points per game on the season to go with seven rebounds per contest and 1.4 blocks per game. Those numbers certainly aren't bad, but for a player of Ellis' caliber, you would expect a little bit more. Over the last five games, Ellis has only averaged seven points per game with three of those games being losses to Iowa State, Temple and SMU. In those losses, Ellis scored 9, 12 and 2 points, respectively. Certainly foul trouble contributes to those numbers, but you would hope the senior wouldn't take himself out of games with early fouls.
With Cincinnati looking for that player to put the team on their back, you have to wonder if Ellis is that guy who will step up and lead the Bearcats in close contests or if Cobb and Caupain will have to continue to shoulder the weight. While USF shouldn't challenge Cincinnati like SMU, Xavier, Iowa State, Butler and even Temple did, the Bearcats will still need to close out the Bulls. Ellis has all the ability in the world and this feels like the perfect tune-up game to build some momentum. It will interesting to see if Ellis can get back on track or if another reliable closer can begin to assert themselves when they need to close a team out.