Annnddd... here we go again.
Conference tournament season is upon us and that means, for Cincinnati, a third bout with the UConn Huskies, after sweeping them in the regular season. While the swept was, oh so sweet, it wasn't what you would call "easy" with Cincinnati needing a clutch three-point play from Gary Clark in the first contest to win, 58-57, and then they needed a dagger from Jacob Evans to pull out a 65-60 win a couple weeks ago.
Now, Cincinnati and UConn meet in Orlando, Florida with a lot on the line. The question is; can Cincinnati do it again?
Meet the Opponent
By now, you probably know the Huskies pretty well. UConn is led in scoring by four players who average double-digits with Shonn Miller and Rodney Purvis leading the way. Both players average 12.6 points per game for the Huskies with Sterling Gibbs and Daniel Hamilton averaging 12.0 and 11.6 points per game, respectively.
While Hamilton is the X-factor, averaging 8.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals and even half a block per game, he has been held in check by Cincinnati in their previous two contests. Hamilton has only scored a combined 10 points against the Bearcats this season, although his rebound/assist numbers in those games do fall around his average.
Cincinnati will most certainly have to keep him in check once again for the Bearcats to win a third time over the Huskies. Cincinnati fans are hoping they don't have to watch another UConn star take over the month of March, following in the footsteps of Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker. Hamilton has the talent to be that sort of terror.
On the UConn side of things, the Huskies are looking to get back on track with Selection Sunday looming. They dropped three of their final five games, beginning with the second loss to Cincinnati and could need a win to get in. In previous game previews, I have brought up the three-ball and Cincinnati's relative inability to guard it. While the Bearcats haven't been picked apart from deep recently, like they were in the middle part of the season, the threat still remains with a UConn squad that has their top four scorers shooting over 33.6% from range.
Shaq Thomas and Farad Cobb
In the previous two meetings, defense dominated the game with neither team able to knockdown shots with consistency. Cincinnati and UConn both shot 38% from the field in the first outing and in the second game, Cincinnati shot 42.6% from the field compared to the Huskies 37.3%.
My point is, Cincinnati will need all the offensive output they can get, not to mention the bodies to throw at a talented UConn squad defensively. Two of those bodies are Shaq Thomas and Farad Cobb, who have been struggling with injuries over the last month or so, which has contributed to season-ending slumps.
Thomas hasn't been the same player since late January when he scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and then followed up that showing with a 17-point outing against Tulane. Thomas suffered his first injuries in the first UConn game in the next game. Since that point, Thomas has scored no more than two points and brought in no more than three rebounds per game. He missed four of the final 10 games, but should be ready to go for Cincinnati this time around. If he can regain the form he was playing with during the brief stretch in January, Cincinnati gets even more dangerous defensively and offensively. Not to mention, he is a valuable athletic to have against a team like UConn.
Cobb has also been dealing with injuries as of late with his production falling off over the final parts of the season. He is currently averaging 10.6 points per game and is second in the AAC in steals averaing 1.4 per game. He has only broken double-digits scoring four times in Cincinnati's final 13 games after Cobb tore it up in the first half of the season, scoring double-digit totals in eight straight games spanning December and January. In fact, he's scored 20+ points in four games this season with his three-point shooting percentage at 39.5%. Cobb is one of those players who can single-handedly swing a game in the Bearcats favor if he finds a rhythm hitting three-pointers.
Both the Bearcats and the Huskies are on the bubble heading into Selection Sunday. Cincinnati appears to be in better shape, should they lose this one, but it seems many are torn on where both teams fall amongst the bubble teams.
Regardless, this is a big game, not only because it's a conference tournament game against a rival, but because of the possible implications for the NCAA Tournament. With a win, the Bearcats further legitimize an at-large opportunity. However, UConn is likely in a must-win situation, if they want a shot at the Big Dance.