We have entered in the second half of the regular season and we are nowhere closer to figuring out just who the Cincinnati Bearcats are as a basketball team. Right when you think its time to start believing they will live up to their preseason hype, they drop a winnable game that leaves you pulling the hair from your head.
Take last week. Cincinnati topped an upstart Houston team rather easily (70-59), giving itself back-to-back wins in conference play for the first time this season. However, on Saturday, the Bearcats' short-lived winning streak came to a heartbreaking end at the hands of budding nemesis Temple. A double-overtime trudge through basketball disparity ended with the Owls holding the 67-65 edge, leaving the Bearcats searching for answers once again. Let's try to find some.
Clark aka Superman
When watching Cincinnati play Temple on Saturday, I posed the question "At what point can we agree that Gary Clark is the best player on this team?" Perhaps that is a bit of a hyperbole, but there's no question that he's been the most consistent. His effort has been at level 100 all season and his impact on the boards is nothing to trifle with. The American Athletic Conference's leader in offensive rebounds (75) is exceptional when it comes to grabbing missed shots. He is second in the league in offensive rebound percentage (15.6) and third in total rebound percentage (16.9).
Against Temple, his work inside was critical in keeping the Owls from pulling off an easier victory against a Cincinnati team that appeared to be allergic to sustained offensive success. He grabbed 14 boards and, while he was at it, dropped in 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Such quiet offensive efficiency has been Clark's most undervalued contribution. Troy Caupain, Farad Cobb and Octavius Ellis get more offensive responsibility and, therefore, more defensive attention, but Clark has shown the ability to finish around the rim, although he still needs work in that regard. But for now, it's tough to argue with a guy ranked fourth in the conference in PER (25.5) who is scoring nearly 10 points per game.
This Ellis You're Looking For
The Jedi mind trick that was played on us in the beginning of AAC play seems to have worn off. After putting forth a number of forgettable stat lines in the first few league tests (which forced Mick Cronin to shift up the lineup more than once), Ellis appears to be back to his double-double and AAC award hunting ways. In the Bearcats' win over Houston, Ellis played his best game in weeks, matching 13 points with 13 rebounds. It was only his third double-double of the season. He followed it up with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks against Temple, marking the third-straight game he had scored in double figures. Add in the fact that he was named to the AAC weekly honor roll on Monday and you can easily call it a strong week for the big man.
While the scoring is nice, Ellis has never been a volume scorer. What has been most encouraging is Ellis' apparent return to being an effective player on the boards. His total rebound percentage in conference play (14.1) is far below is mark overall (16.7). In fact, the 6-foot-10 forward had a total of 13 rebounds in the first four conference matchups. Showing more aggression bit him at the end of the Temple game as he fouled out, but Ellis needs to be the monster on the inside on both ends for Cincinnati to succeed.
Dude, Where's Shaq and KJ?
Two of the upperclassmen on this team built on experience have been major disappointments. Shaq Thomas and Kevin Johnson aren't stars and they don't need to be. When they've been at their best, they've been glue guys that fill in the gaps, play solid defense and hit a shot or two when their names are called. However, neither guy has displayed any of those traits, at least not for long stretches.
Against Temple, Thomas played several strong defensive possessions, but most of the time you could barely tell he was on the floor. That's not what you want from a guy playing 25 minutes. For Johnson, he seemed like the best fit in the backcourt with Cobb against Temple as Caupain was sidelined due to foul trouble. He had six rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes. However, the positives were largely outweighed by the miserable shooting performance he turned in, going 1-of-7 from the floor including a pair of ugly air balls. It was a nasty step backward for Johnson, who scored 15 points in the win over Houston. Depth for depth's sake is not a trait of winning team. The depth also has to have substance and right now, Thomas and Johnson are not helping that cause.
One of the dangerous undercurrents of this Cincinnati team is its struggles defending the 3-point shot. The Bearcats block shots with the best of them and shame any shooter that dares to step into the painted area, ranking 12th in the country in opponent 2-point field goal percentage (.409). But when teams decide to launch it from deep, everything goes to what the kids call H-E-double hockey sticks. The Bearcats are letting opponents hit 34.4 percent of their 3-point shots and they rank eighth in 3-point defense in the AAC (33.6 percent). Long-range shooting killed them against Temple, especially the work of Devin Coleman (5-of-10) and even in the win over Houston, they let up a 10-of-22 effort from beyond the arc.
We know Cincinnati will never be an offensive juggernaut that can go on big runs whenever they feel like it. Because of that, they cannot afford to give up such successful shooting from distance, as clawing for each an every point becomes a losing proposition when the other team is getting easy triples.
Cincinnati fell out of the national rankings on Jan. 4 and its inconsistent play has kept it from even flirting with a return for the last few weeks. It is worth noting that there are two teams in the AAC among the nation's best. Undefeated SMU (17-0) is No. 8 in the AP poll and Connecticut is receiving 12 votes in the USA Today/Coaches poll.
Highlight of the Week
We've got a two for one sale going here at Down the Drive. Enjoy!
@Tay_UC2 with the follow up SLAM tonight versus the Houston Cougars, @Bearcat_BBall wins 70-59 #Bearcats pic.twitter.com/STRFdXX8wd— Mark Slaughter (@MarkVSlaughter) January 14, 2016
@DEBERRY22 gets the feed and he knows how to finish, @Bearcat_BBall beats UH 70-59 #Bearcats pic.twitter.com/x0B3oo9tUU— Mark Slaughter (@MarkVSlaughter) January 14, 2016
Quadri Moore Minutes Watch
Moore is second to last on the team in minutes played (138) and is only getting in for about nine per game. He played a total of eight minutes combined against Temple and Houston. As all my preseason predictions crumble around me, this one continues to be a real thorn in my side. Moore is currently on pace for 266.6 minutes. He'll probably fail to reach even that as his playing time in league play is a tick below his overall numbers.
This is a week of very winnable games for Cincinnati. On Thursday, Memphis comes to Fifth Third. That won't be a runaway, but considering the Tigers are nothing special and the Bearcats are hosting, it should be a win. Then, on Saturday, Tulane is the visitor to Fifth Third. If Cincinnati can't sweep this week then their NCAA Tournament dreams will start turning into NIT nightmares.