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Breaking Down the Bearcats Conference Schedule

Here is the road to that elusive American Athletic Conference title.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Methodist at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I predicted that the Cincinnati Bearcats would win the American Athletic Conference. I may have missed on that one, but something tells me that I might be making a similar statement later this month. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, we can look at what the gambit will look like for UC’s quest to finish the 2016-17 season dancing and cutting down nets in Hartford, where the 2017 AAC Tournament will be held.

After a home-heavy non-conference slate, the Bearcats will go on the road to kick off their league schedule against the Owls, who were an exceptional thorn in UC’s side last year. The matchup at the Liacouras Center was the must brutal, as UC dropped a 67-65 decision in double overtime thanks to 22 points from Quenton DeCosey and five three-pointers from Devin Coleman. Temple, which earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, was one of several teams that struck the Bearcats on the soft side of their defense (3-point shooting).

However, this will be a largely different roster for the Owls, who no longer have DeCosey or Coleman and will be led by guard Josh Brown, who played more minutes than anyone for Fran Dunphy’s squad and averaged 4.9 assists per game.

After dealing with the Owls, the Bearcats will bring in the New Year with a home game on Jan. 1 against Tulane. The Green Wave only challenged UC once last season, and there wasn’t a high degree of difficulty there, with the boys in red and black rolling to a 97-75 victory. Tulane put together its worst season since 2010 last year, going 12-22 overall, including a league-worst 3-15 mark in conference play.

Its back to the road from there, as UC will visit Houston the following weekend (Jan. 7). The two teams split their meetings last season, but the Bearcats really had trouble when they visited Hofheinz Pavilion. They trailed by as many as 16 and were outscored 28-12 in the paint and 15-6 off of turnovers in a 69-56 loss. The Cougars are a team on the rise, coming off a 22-win campaign and entering their third year under Kelvin Sampson, so this will be a tough test early in the conference schedule.

Even though they won’t stay in Texas, their next opponent will keep the Lone Star State in the Bearcats’ mind, as SMU will visit Fifth Third Arena on Jan. 12. This may be a different team than the one UC upset in the regular season finale last spring, what with Larry Brown and Nic Moore gone. However, with their postseason suspension finished and some returning talent, the Mustangs won’t just roll over following three-straight 25-win seasons.

The same cannot be said of the next opponent, East Carolina, which has been headed in reverse of late, recording fewer wins than the year before in each of the last three seasons. UC will visit the Pirates on Jan. 15 in the only scheduled meeting between the two programs this season.

That game will be followed by a home test against Temple and an away tilt against Tulane, meaning the Bearcats will have played the Owls and Green Wave twice before February even comes around.

Following a brief break from AAC play for the Crosstown Shootout on Jan. 26, the Bearcats will get back to work when it hosts USF on Jan. 29, part of a two-game homestand, its first since three-straight home games in mid-December. USF didn’t finish last in the AAC standings in 2016 but its 8-25 overall mark was easily the worst in the league.

The month of February will get off to a fast start from there for UC, which plays at Tulsa on Feb. 1 and then gets its long awaited rematch with UConn at Fifth Third Arena three days later. The Golden Hurricane and the Huskies each won in overtime the last time they faced the Bearcats, with UConn’s four-overtime brutality in the AAC Tournament obviously stinging a bit more than Tulsa’s 70-68 triumph in mid-February.

The matchup with UConn is the first half of a two-part homestand which concludes on Feb. 8 against UCF, a team UC routed 69-51 in its only meeting a year ago. In a largely competitive AAC, which featured six 20-win teams plus a 19-win Memphis squad, the Knights were stuck in the cellar, going 12-18 overall and 6-12 in league play.

Back-to-back away games await from there, with visits to SMU and USF. Interestingly enough, this will mark the longest true road trip of the campaign for the Bearcats, who face Tulsa and Memphis at home in the two games following.

They then play at UCF and against Houston before closing out the season against UConn in a game that will likely decide the AAC regular season champion.

For UC, which went 12-6 against AAC competition last season, this slate appears to be one it can navigate relatively safely, helped by the fact that there is only one instance of back-to-back road games. Let the quest to Hartford begin.