Cincinnati Bearcats basketball gets their first shot at 2016 with an American Athletic Conference clash today against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, following a disappointing 77-70 home loss to Temple just four days ago. After the loss, head coach Mick Cronin didn't hold back, saying there is a lack of toughness in the locker room and he questioned if his team cared enough to win games. This game not only is the start of a new year for the Bearcats, but already feels like an early-season "crossroads" game. With No. 17 SMU on the horizon and the early loss to the Owls, Cincinnati needs to notch a win in conference play, especially in front of the Bearcats faithful.
At 8-5, the Golden Hurricane are a more threatening matchup, on paper, than the 5-5 Owls were. Tulsa has an early-season win against Wichita State and has taken care of business through much of their non-conference schedule. The Golden Hurricane did drop their conference opener against SMU four days ago, losing 81-69.
Tulsa averages 76.2 points per game, led by Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard, who average 17.7 and 16.5 points per game, respectively. The senior guard duo compliment each other well, with Harrison leading the team in steals, averaging 2.1 per game, and Woodard providing Tulsa's second-best three-point percentage, hitting 41 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Still, Harrison leads the team in scoring for a reason, shooting 50 percent from the field. Harrison and Woodard also lead the team in rebounds from the guard position. Harrison averages 5.4 and Woodard is averaging 4.9 rebounds per game. Another senior guard, Rashad Smith, leads the team in three-point shooting, shooting 44 percent from three-point range.
As a team, the Golden Hurricane are quite comparable to Cincinnati, hitting 45.6 percent from the field (compared to Cincinnati's 45.7 percent), 66.9 percent from the free throw line (compared to Cincinnati's 70.4 percent) and 34.1 percent from beyond the arc (compared to Cincinnati's 36.2 percent).
A consistent strength of Cincinnati basketball during the Cronin era, the defensive play has fallen off a bit this season. While the Bearcats are still 18th nationally, only allowing 62.2 points per game, Cincinnati's defense has been inconsistent against quality teams. They only allowed 65 points to Xavier (and only scored 55 themselves), but allowed 78 points to Butler, 81 points to Iowa State and, most recently, 77 points to Temple at home.
With Tulsa averaging around 76 points per game themselves, Cincinnati will need to buckle down defensively to avoid a second conference loss. One particular area where the defense needs to buckle down is against the three-ball, which has been the bread and butter of Bearcats opponents. Cincinnati allows 22.5 points per game from beyond the arc alone, ranking them No. 238 out of 351 teams nationally. In their last three games, the Bearcats have allowed an average of 26 points per game from three. It's a problem you'd like to see Cincinnati shore up today, especially as it relates to Woodard and his scoring prowess from beyond the arc.
Toughness was a theme of Cronin's postgame press conference following the Temple game. He questioned if his team cared that they lost and said he was disappointed with the effort exhibited in practice. Even starting Jacob Evans III and Coreontae DeBerry over Octavius Ellis and Shaq Thomas seemed tied to a perceived "lack of effort" in practice.
So, in today's game, watch for the effort plays and follow the team energy, especially early. Cincinnati has struggled to start quick this season and if the Temple game served as the wake-up call everyone thought it was, we should see a focused, high-intensity game from a talented Cincinnati team. If they don't get that effort and don't exhibit that toughness, both physical and mental, Cincinnati could find themselves down 0-2 in conference play, heading into a matchup with No. 17 SMU.