We are nearing the stretch run folks. Wait. Hold on. We are no longer nearing, we're in it. At this point, there isn't any time left to improve. Saying "they'll figure it out" is useless. Playing into shape, a fallacy from the outset, is entirely laughable at this point. We are halfway through February and that means March is no longer a far off destination. It's the next exit and it's approaching fast.
What has Cincinnati done up to this point to get ready to take that exit? With wins in four of their last five games, the Bearcats have improved to 19-7 overall and 9-4 in league play, which has it just a game back of first place Temple and a half-game back of second place SMU. There are now only five games left and each one is a must-win for Cincinnati, not just if it wants to win the American Athletic Conference, but if it wants to ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament and not be left sweating through their shorts on Selection Saturday.
But this is not a post about what will come, but what about what has come to pass. So let's take a look at where Cincinnati stands.
Shaking Things Up
Following a gut-wrenching loss to Memphis, in which Cincinnati clawed back from a major deficit, Mick Cronin made an adjustment to the starting lineup. The Bearcats have put out only one or two alternate lineups this season, with the five of Gary Clark, Troy Caupain, Octavius Ellis, Farad Cobb and Shaq Thomas usually slotted in. In the last two games, Cronin has rewarded the strong play of freshman Jacob Evans, who has taken Thomas' spot. It makes all the sense in the world. Thomas has been not that great this season. His numbers may be up, but that doesn't mean anything once you start making comparisons. That leads us to this little game:
Player A: 18.0 PER, 118.3 offensive rating, 92.4 defensive rating, 13.4 points per 40 minutes, .495 TS%, .437 eFG%
Player B: 15.2 PER, 104.0 offensive rating, 94.3 defensive rating, 12.6 points per 40 minutes, .505 TS%, .386 eFG%
Which one of those guys looks better? Player A, correct? If you are nodding along with me then you just bought stock in Evans, who has been the better overall player. He may be younger than Thomas, but he has proven to be an aggressive defender, and there's no questioning his raw offensive talent. Putting Evans in the lineup is a smart move at this point because he is playing better and could add a new dynamic that pushes Cincinnati over the edge. Thomas is a known quantity and his length and defense are better suited to come off the bench. If you were wondering how Evans fared in the last two games, he scored 10 points against ECU and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in 13 minutes against UCF.
Holy double double-double threats, Batman! In the last two games, Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis have played in perfect concert, making beautiful music together. With Ellis putting up 26 points and 25 rebounds and Clark keeping his sensational sophomore campaign going with 26 and 20, as well as eight assists. The two-game stretch could be called the To Pimp a Butterfly of the duo's 2015-16 season. Let's hope this new Batman and Robin routine continues for the two big guys.
As an aside, Clark needs to be praised for his passing as well as his ability to score and rebound. He is averaging 2.4 assists per game, which is second on the team, and consistently makes the right move with the ball, whether it be taking it to the defense or kicking it out to the open guy when defenders collapse in on him.
As I thought about how few games remain on the schedule, I started thinking about the best wins of the season. Not necessarily the most emotional or the biggest blowouts, but the win that will loom largest on the resume for the selection committee. For a while, the win over George Washington looked great, but the Colonials have since sagged in conference play, making it a solid victory, but not the type of stuff that gets the blood pumping. The win over VCU is another one that just looks OK, but isn't what you're looking for in a marquee victory.
Letting that game against Iowa State slip away will really hurt, since that would easily be the crowning achievement of the campaign, but for now I guess you'd have to say that gutting out a 58-57 win at Connecticut is the coup de gras.
We ain't dead yet! In this week's AP poll, Cincinnati earned two votes. That's right, the Bearcats have two votes they can rub together. Let's just ignore the fact that UNC Wilmington (four) and Yale (three) have more. Meanwhile, the USA Today Coaches poll continues to ignore the Bearcats (probably deservedly so).
As far as bracketology goes, UC is one of the last four teams in according to Joe Lunardi, CBS and some site called SB Nation. In that scenario, the Bearcats would be an 11 seed and need a win in the First Four to get to the actual tournament.
Highlight of the Week
OK, so Aaron Gordon sat on a mascot's head and dunked and Zach LaVine made Jordan's foul line dunk look like a joke, but why pay for those premium packages when you can get two for the price of one.
Cincinnati Bearcats (@GoBEARCATS) February 13, 2016
Quadri Moore Minutes Watch
While UC was putting up a 4-1 record the last five games, Quadri Moore was not seen very often. He managed a high of four minutes against Memphis and did not see any floor time in the team's 31-point trouncing of USF. He scored three points along the way, making his only field goal attempt found in those 10 minutes. Moore now has a grand total of 169 minutes played, putting him on track for just 181.7 this season. Even if Moore played every minute of every game the rest of the regular season, he would still finish with less than 400 minutes. I guess that whole 500 minutes prediction was as wrong as wrong can be.
This week is not for the faint of heart. Although UC topped Thursday's opponent Tulsa, 76-57, when they met up at the beginning of January, the Golden Hurricane are a 16-win team that plays well at home. Things only get harder on Saturday when you will certainly need your heart pills for another rendition of Cincinnati versus UConn. Clark's game-winning 3-point play is still fresh in our minds, so it will certainly be seared into the nightmares of the Huskies. Expect another slugfest on Saturday.