When SMU dropped its first game of the season on Sunday, it rekindled the hope that still lived in the hearts and minds of two programs and their respective fan bases.
On Thursday, both the Cincinnati Bearcats and Connecticut Huskies will get a shot to keep giving those dreams shots from the defibrillator. UC (15-6, 4-3 AAC) enters the contest with wins in back-to-back games and with its sights set on its first three-game winning streak since November. The Huskies (14-5, 4-2) want to do one better, as their win over Georgetown last Saturday lifted the prestige of their resume and earned them a third-straight victory.
With Tulsa and Temple, as well as SMU, currently sitting above them in the American Athletic Coast standings, both teams will enter the fray on Thursday with desperate abandon. It remains to be seen which squad will use that desperation as fuel to produce an important victory and which one will let the opportunity slip through its fingers like the sands of Hammonasset Beach.
Meet the Opponent
With 14 wins in 19 total games, UConn is in a very similar spot compared to Cincinnati. Both squads have the name recognition and pedigree that would make a 20-win campaign enough for a NCAA Tournament bid. However, like UC, the Huskies are suffering from a bout of underachievement. It doesn't help that defensive dynamo and all-around beast Amida Brimah has been out since December with a broken finger. But with the likes of Shonn Miller (13.6 PPG), Rodney Purvis (13.5 PPG), Daniel Hamilton (12.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 4.7 APG) and Sterling Gibbs (13.1 PPG), they have managed to keep on competing at a relatively high level.
As we've come to expect, Kevin Ollie's crew is made up a nice core of guards, with Gibbs, formerly of Seton Hall, providing a solid addition to the ranks. However, Hamilton is the player that needs to be kept in check. After ROBBING Gary Clark of the AAC Freshman of the Year award last season, the 6-foot-7 swingman from Los Angeles is putting together an incredible sophomore campaign. While his offensive numbers are strong, his work on defense has made him the type of all-around player that gives opponents nightmares. He leads the AAC in defensive rating (87.1) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.6).
Numbers to Know
Battles between UC and UConn are just that, bloodbaths of slow pace, grinding defense and physical strength. Such themes breed tight contests. Fans on both sides have been lucky enough to have their hearts pound straight through their rib cages more than once while watching these teams take jabs at one another. Last season, UConn defeated the Bearcats 57-54 in the quarterfinals of the AAC tournament on a last-second shot from Ryan Boatright. It was the seventh time in the last eight matchups that the victor has been decided by seven points or less.
Someone finally woke Shaq Thomas up. The senior forward was a centerpiece of the Bearcats' wins over Tulane and Memphis over the course of the last week, scoring 18 points against the Tigers and 17 against the Green Wave. This new bulk scoring did not come because Thomas started hoisting 50 shots a game or anything either, as he knocked down 14-of-19 attempts combined against those team squads. If he were to score 10 or more in this one, it would mark the first time this season he has been in double figures in three-straight contests.
It's a rare thing when UC plays a team that is performing at a more impressive rate on defense. Well, UConn is rewriting the book on defense in the 30-second shot clock era, especially in AAC action. The Huskies are leading the league in opponent field goal percentage (35.2 percent) and scoring (59.8 PPG) in conference play. However, the Huskies have been rather miserable to watch on offense, ranking eighth in the league in scoring (64.8 PPG) and second to last in field goal percentage (38.2 percent) during conference games.