The pressure is on for the Bearcats and it may not get greater than it is this week (outside actual postseason play, of course). Cincinnati, sporting a 19-7 overall record, with a 9-4 record in the American Athletic Conference, hits the road to play the 16-9 (8-5) Tulsa Golden Hurricane today, before hosting the UConn Huskies on Saturday. With the Bearcats needing every win they can get during the final stretch of the regular season, this week will play a pivotal role in postseason aspirations. It all begins with a very tough road contest against Tulsa.
Meet the Opponent
We've seen Tulsa before. Back on January 2, Cincinnati hosted the Golden Hurricane, defeating them by a final score of 76-57. It was a game that was largely over when it began, but there were a couple factors at play that are misleading.
First of all, Cincinnati was coming off their first loss to Temple, just days before. Facing a Cincinnati team looking to rebound from the disappointing loss, the Bearcats came out firing. The resulting blitzkrieg left Tulsa's offense dead in the water from the onset, with the Golden Hurricane starting the game shooting 1-of-11 from the field and struggling to protect the ball against a fired-up Bearcats defense. The game was over at halftime when Cincinnati entered the break with a 42-28 lead.
This second round figures to be a different type of game. While neither team is what they were over a month ago, this Tulsa team has bounced back to play well in conference play and with them hosting the Bearcats this time around, this figures to be anything but an easy win for the Bearcats.
As far as Tulsa's major contributors are concerned, the Golden Hurricane remain led by their duo of senior guards, Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard. Woodard is the leading scorer with 15.9 points per game, while adding 5.1 rebounds per contest and a solid 36.4% shooting percentage from deep. Harrison, averaging 15.2 points and 5.4 boards per game, is a different type of player, hitting 48.2% of his field goals and dishing 4.1 assists per game. Pat Birt, a junior guard, is averaging 11.8 points per contest and leads the team, shooting 38.7% from three.
Welcome back, Octavius Ellis! Ellis, who has struggled with consistency for much of the year, seems to have finally blossomed into the consistent force that was expected from the talented senior. In the last two games, against ECU and UCF, Ellis combined for 26 points and 25 rebounds, earning consecutive double-doubles.
On the other side of the paint, Gary Clark, a double-double machine himself, scored 26 points and brought down 20 rebounds, while adding eight assists in those two games alone. Clark was largely carrying the Bearcats over the past couple weeks while dominating the boards and setting up teammates for easy baskets.
Ellis and Clark have the ability, as demonstrated for various stretches this season, to control games individually, but if both continue to play like they have been lately, Cincinnati should absolutely control the paint against a Golden Hurricane team that leans heavily on guard play. Look for Ellis and/or Clark to make a big impact in this one. They will need to.
Cincinnati vs. Tulsa: Part II
Cincinnati has other ways of getting into the Big Dance, but winning out is clearly their best bet, as the Bearcats already find themselves on the bubble in current bracketology predictions. The issue for UC fans is that winning out will be very difficult to do, starting with the Golden Hurricane.
While their previous matchup ended up being a largely forgettable contest, this round figures to be much more challenging. Tulsa is 9-3 at home this season and beat SMU on the road just over a week ago. While the Golden Hurricane are coming off a two-point loss to UConn, the Bearcats will need to avoid the common pitfalls that have put them in the position they're in as we approach the end of February. They will need to stop the three-ball, will need to knock down their own shots and will potentially need to close out the game late with solid offensive and defensive execution.
Regardless, Cincinnati will have their work cut out for them.