They may not have been masterpieces, more like crayon scribblings in a coloring book, but Cincinnati managed to win its two games since we last checked in, improving to 11-2 overall and taking a 1-0 start to American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats have now won four-straight (including a 56-50 win at Temple last night) and are continuing to stand firm as the toast of the AAC. Here are some things that were brought to light during the last week.
Winning the Close Ones
Last year, UC had a real issue closing out close games and coming back from deficits. The Bearcats have still not mastered the art, but who really ever does? They lost to Rhode Island by five points in November and then failed to rally against Butler earlier this month.
However, in the last week they showed some resiliency that was seemingly lacking a year ago. In last Thursday’s matchup with Marshall, UC trailed by as many as 15 points but instead of falling apart, the Bearcats stormed back, with huge efforts from Jacob Evans and Gary Clark and a game-winner from Troy Caupain in overtime. It was the Bearcats first win in overtime since they escaped with a 66-65 win over Purdue in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. During the 2016-17 season they were 0-3 in overtime games.
Then, in their AAC opener against Temple in Philadelphia, the Bearcats overcame a terrible offensive showing to escape the City of Brotherly Love with a 56-50 victory. Defense was key as UC held the Owls to 27.6 percent shooting and didn’t allow a late three-point shooting surge, something that plagued the Bearcats during an 0-2 showing against the Owls a year ago.
UC is just 3-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer this season but that trajectory is an improvement on last season when the Bearcats went 9-10 in such games, including three overtime heartbreakers and a few more just misses. Consistently winning close games is always a challenge and the Bearcats haven’t found a magic formula by any means, but its good to see them win games they probably would have lost a year ago.
Gary Clark Is A Problem
For other teams that is. After a slow start Clark has been playing better than anyone else on the roster. In the last week alone he accumulated 37 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and four blocks while shooting 64 percent from the floor. His Herculean performance against Marshall (26 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, 11-of-14 shooting) was a spectacle unto itself and that’s before mentioning the critical three-pointer he drilled in overtime which he followed up with a block on the other end.
Clark is second on the team in effective field goal percentage (.573), third in rebounding percentage (.140) and tied for third in block percentage (.051) and those numbers are only going to keep rising. He is also second on the team in win shares (2.0) and tied with Evans for the team lead in box plus/minus (+10.9), which, according to sports-reference.com, gives an estimation of how many points per 100 possessions a player would be responsible for compared to an average contributor on an average team.
Appreciating UC’s Defense
Cincinnati plays good defensive basketball. Yada, yada. You’ve heard it all before. Well that doesn’t mean we should take it for granted. Perhaps giving up 91 points to Marshall was not the defensive showcase you’d expect from the Bearcats, but even despite that, they are still ranked fifth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.5) and its worth noting that Marshall is No. 31 in adjusted offense. Meanwhile, UC hounded Temple all over the floor on Wednesday night. Leading scorer Obi Enechionyia turned the ball over four times and went 3-for-10 from the floor, missing all five of his three-point tries along the way. UC’s reserves dominated their counterparts as well, with Temple’s bench going 0-for-7 from the field.
Not a single player on the roster has a defensive rating above 100 this season and four regular contributors (Clark, Caupain, Kyle Washington and Tre Scott) are splashing around in the 80s. If defense wins championships then you can crown the Bearcats right now.
Jacob Evans Getting Some NBA Attention
Even if Evans didn’t have his best game of the season against Temple, there were apparently a few spectators in attendance who are interested in how well the UC sophomore has been playing.
One NBA scout just told me, before leaving, that #UC's Jacob Evans was the primary man on their scout list in tonight's game— Tom Groeschen (@TomGroeschen) December 29, 2016
Sean Kilpatrick is currently the only former Bearcat playing in the NBA but perhaps Evans will join him in the next few years.
UC’s win over Temple came after the release of the most recent AP and Coaches poll, so the Marshall win was all that factored into voters decisions. The win yielded a net positive as the Bearcats rose to No. 23 in the AP Top 25 and the same spot in the Coaches poll.
As for KenPom, his data runs through Dec. 28 and Cincinnati is ranked No. 21 in the country, buoyed by that No. 5 adjusted defensive rating.
Highlight of the Week
Now that’s an NBA-level play.
On Sunday the Bearcats will host Tulane at Fifth Third Arena. UC rolled to a 97-75 victory against the Green Wave in the only matchup between them last season. The Bearcats have also won 12 of the last 13 meetings.