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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at No. 15 SMU Mustangs

Cincinnati looks to earn a valuable road win against the undefeated SMU Mustangs.

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was a rollercoaster for Bearcats basketball with Cincinnati losing a home game to Temple, 77-70, in which head coach Mick Cronin called out his team for a lack of effort and a lack of focus. Cincinnati responded days later with a dominating defensive showcase against a good Tulsa offense, winning 76-57. The comfortable win over the Golden Hurricane not only restored some faith in the Bearcats faithful, but may have come just in time for a matchup against the 13-0 SMU Mustangs, who rank No. 15 nationally.

Meet the Opponent

The Mustangs are an interesting undefeated team. Facing a postseason ban this season, and their head coach being suspended for the first nine games, SMU has put together a fast start to their season, averaging 82.8 points per game over their 13 games, ranking No. 32 in the country in that category. Amongst those wins are home wins against the likes of 12-3 Michigan and 12-3 Colorado. The Mustangs have not only strung together wins, but have done so with the No. 6 scoring margin nationally at 20.5 per game. Their defense is, comparatively speaking, even better than their offense, ranking No. 21 nationally, only allowing 62.4 points per game, playing an integral part in that impressive scoring margin for the Mustangs.

SMU is led in scoring by talented senior guard Nic Moore, who is averaging 15.9 points per game on 42 percent shooting from the field, nearly 80 percent from the line and 42 percent from beyond the arc. Moore leads the Mustangs with 4.9 assists per game and 1.3 steals per game. The 6-foot-7 Jordan Tolbert is second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.2 points per game. Tolbert averages a double-double per game for the Mustangs, averaging 10.2 rebounds per game to go along with his scoring numbers. Forward Ben Moore and guard Shake Milton each average double digits in scoring with 12.1 and 11.6 points per game, respectively. Junior Keith Frazier left the team this week with sources citing the academic scandal that led to the NCAA punishments as the motivating factor. Still, SMU has Sterling Brown and Markus Kennedy averaging just under double digits in points per game (9.8 and 9.6, respectively).

Is the Defense Back?

Cincinnati's defense has encountered their fair share of struggles this season, particularly against the tougher opponents this season (and a Temple team that nobody can seem to figure out), but their most recent outing against Tulsa was definitely one of the highlights. The Bearcats were all over the court, tipping passes and creating havoc against a Golden Hurricane offense that is pretty talented in their own right.

Now, Cincinnati's defense confronts a SMU team that has put up big point totals this season against some quality competition. The Mustangs divvy up the scoring well and are averaging 19 assists per game as a team. They're knocking down 51.9 percent of their field goals and 42.8 percent of their three-pointers. Those numbers are frightening if the Cincinnati defense that faced Temple travels to Dallas, but if the Cincinnati defense from the Tulsa game makes the trip, the Bearcats could keep the scoring down, which should play to the Bearcats favor.

Regardless, Cincinnati's defense is a key in this one. If the Bearcats don't bring it defensively against the Mustangs, it will be hard to keep SMU from 14-0.

Cincinnati Needs a Big Win

At 11-4, Cincinnati remains a factor in the national landscape, but the Bearcats are still seeking a key win for the postseason resume. Butler, Xavier and Iowa State are all ranked in the top 25 nationally, ranked No. 18, No. 10, and No. 13, respectively, but Cincinnati couldn't notch any of those key wins. The loss to Temple certainly didn't help either.

Now the Bearcats get a chance at an undefeated, 13-0 SMU team on the road. Cincinnati needs a big win against a ranked opponent and this one presents a great opportunity for a team that should be all the more focused given last week's games against Temple and Tulsa. If Cincinnati can get a top-notch defensive performance and an efficient offensive game off of turnovers, Cincinnati fans could be celebrating a big win come Friday.