Believe it or not, college basketball is closing in on us. Also, in connection with that, believe it or not, I’m walking on air, but you probably don’t care about that so let’s move on. Quickly.
As the campaign approaches, the Cincinnati Bearcats are once again pegged as a team to be reckoned with and one that will contend for the American Athletic Conference crown. However, before they can really get to work on that, they’ll need to navigate through the non-conference slate, which, according to our friends at Blogging the Bracket, is average when compared to the rest of the AAC. Here’s what you can expect from the unofficial first half of the season.
Friday Nov. 11 vs. Brown
Things kicks off with a battle against the Ivy League. While Harvard and Yale have elevated the conference with some stunning upsets in the NCAA Tournament, Brown has not done much in terms of basketball for quite some time. The Bears won only eight games last season and have not had more than 15 wins since 2008. Entering their fifth year under head coach Mike Martin, Brown should be an appetizer for the Bearcats.
Monday Nov. 14 vs. Albany
Now here’s an NCAA Tournament darling that could up the difficulty. The Great Danes made three-straight NCAA Tournament’s from 2013-2015 and won 24 games last season, although they didn’t go dancing.
However, despite recent success, playing without their top three scorers (particularly Peter Hooley) from last season will make things that much more difficult on the road against UC.
Saturday Nov. 19 vs. Rhode Island
The first two games of the season are satellite portions of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tip-Off, but the matchup with the Rams in Uncasville, Connecticut represents the event proper.
Although its 17-15 record last season doesn’t scream NCAA Tournament sleeper, there is some of that in this team, especially as it returns E.C. Matthews to the fold. Matthews averaged 16.9 points per game two years ago when the Rams won 23 games, but missed most of last season to due a right knee injury. Back to health, he will be the first volume scorer the Bearcats’ patented torture chamber defense will attempt to corral.
Depending on the outcome of this game, UC could play one of two opponents on Sunday Nov. 20.
- Option 1: Duke
As if you need me to explain the reason why this would be a big game. Just two years removed from their fifth NCAA title under Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils feature a stellar recruiting class and excellent player/classic Duke player everyone hates, Grayson Allen.
- Option 2: Penn State
Facing off with Penn State would be much more of a let down (no offense, Nittany Lions). Penn State has been slogging around .500 for the last few seasons and its potential doesn’t seem to point to anything better than that this winter. In fact, the Nittany Lions are probably headed for worse returns since Shep Garner (14.8 PPG) no longer has Brandon Taylor (16.3 PPG) to play with.
Wednesday Nov. 23 vs. Samford
On a night largely considered the biggest drinking holiday of the year, you now know what you’ll be watching while you get ready to give thanks (or not, depending on how hungover you are on Thanksgiving). Samford went 14-19 last year and hails from the Southern Conference.
Saturday Nov. 26 vs. Lipscomb
Again, not a matchup you’d put on a marquee. With a little more than a decade of Division I experience, the Lipscomb Bisons went just 12-21 overall a year ago and that was with J.C. Hampton (15.9 PPG). Without him, I’m not sure how much indigestion the Bearcats’ will be feeling no matter how much they eat on Thanksgiving.
Thursday Dec. 1 at Iowa State
For a few glorious seconds, Cincinnati had an upset of a nationally ranked non-conference powerhouse within its reach last year against Iowa State. The instant thriller between the Bearcats and Cyclones didn’t end up going in favor of the home team (81-79 ISU) because of a three-pointer from Abdel Nader, but UC showed it could hang with big time competition. Unfortunately, as was the case against ISU, UC never really showed that it could finish the job in those situations much of last year. Here’s a chance not only at revenge, but at proving that the Bearcats aren’t just pesky defensive bullies but a team that can beat anyone.
Sunday Dec. 4 vs. Bowling Green
A possible trap game since UC will need to expend all its energy on the road against Iowa State, the Bearcats will need to bounce back quickly to host the Falcons. Bowling Green is a team not built to topple UC and its vaunted defense, as it has trouble scoring all on its own. The Falcons were 242nd in the country in scoring last season (70.6 PPG) last season, the first under Michael Huger (the team’s third coach in as many years).
Saturday Dec. 10 at Butler
The only other true road game of the non-league slate, this is another minefield that could be either a launching pad for a big year or another reminder that UC struggles to finish off games. The Bearcats led for much of the second half when these teams tangled last season, but a last-second layup from Roosevelt Jones gave the Bulldogs a 78-76 win and began a trend of heart-wrenching final shots that UC would suffer. The Bulldogs won 22 games last season and reached as high as No. 9 in the AP poll and, even without Kellen Dunham and Jones, have stars in the making, particularly Kelan Martin. This is an NCAA Tournament team and a win against it on the road would be a major plus on the ol’ resume.
Tuesday Dec. 13 vs. Texas Southern
A decent low mid-major squad with a recent track record that includes two NCAA Tournament appearances, TSU found a way to win 18 games last season. Its not Butler or Iowa State but this will be a winnable game that UC can’t afford to let slip.
Saturday Dec. 17 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson
UC will play at least four 2016 NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference play. Iowa State, Butler, Xavier and, that’s right, Fairleigh Dickinson. The Knights, who won the Northeast Conference tournament, lost to Florida Gulf Coast in the First Four, but that still counts.
Thursday Dec. 22 vs. Marshall
A six-win improvement for the Thundering Herd was a nice sign of life in the second season of Dan D’Antoni’s tenure. Much like its mascot indicates, Marshall is a team that runs and runs hard. It ranked third in the nation in scoring last year (86 PPG) and had four players average in double figures, including first-team All-Conference USA forward James Kelly (20.1 PPG). Even though Kelly is gone, the Herd will keep Thundering. That will be an intriguing challenge for UC’s defensive acumen.
Thursday Jan. 26 vs. Xavier
Even though AAC play will have started by now, the Crosstown Shootout will not lose any of its fervor. Last year was a tough one because, not only did the Bearcats lose to the X for third-straight time, but they had to watch as the Musketeers put together a top 10 season overall. The combination of Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner means this will once again be a challenging contest with a team that will undoubtedly contend for a NCAA Tournament bid. The fact that they are a hated rival just makes it that much more important.
There is a glaring lack of road games this season. Although most teams play the bulk of their non-conference schedule at home, the Bearcats only have the two true road games. However, those two away tests are about as difficult as you can get. Putting four (and potentially five if UC gets to play Duke) NCAA Tournament teams on the schedule means the Bearcats once again have the makings of a strong tournament resume, assuming they can finish wins and not let them slip away like last year.