Do you hear that sound? Of course you do. In November and December it was a whisper lost in the wind. In January it was faint, but fleeting. In February, you could hear it rumbling, but it was not on the horizon. Now? Well now we can see it rolling towards us and you don't really need to have your ear to the ground to make out the sound.
What's the "it" I'm talking about? Why March Madness of course. The calendar flipped over to the third month earlier this week and with it comes all the college basketball magic we all thirst for the other 11 months of the year. While we are all anxious about Selection Sunday and eager to start filling out brackets like crazed detectives searching for the Zodiac Killer, there are still a few more regular season chores to take care of. Cincinnati topped East Carolina on the road last week by a score of 65-56. It was the lone matchup of the week. Let's unpack that first.
Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Win
It was a lackluster effort from Cincinnati in Greenville, North Carolina but it was enough to put the Pirates to bed. The Bearcats coasted to a 37-25 halftime lead and then never looked back, cruising to victory in the second half. There were some bad parts. The continued inability to consistently defend the 3-point arc was especially frustrating to see. ECU nailed 13-of-29 attempts from long range. Cincinnati still needs to get its act together here, as it ranks 272nd in the country in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (.361). It's a weird place to be in considering no team in the world defends inside the arc better.
OK, now to the goodies. First up, here's your weekly reminder that Jacob Evans is the best freshman in the AAC. He scored a career-high 18 points and secured seven rebounds against ECU. In addition, he drilled 4-of-9 shots from 3-point range and played all 40 minutes, the only Bearcat to do so. Do us a favor, Mick, and stop keeping him out of the lineup. His development this season makes the impending departure of Octavius Ellis (more on that next week) easier to take. Gary Clark and Evans will be a nice one-two combination over the next few years.
Here's another fun fact from this one: Cincinnati outscored ECU 12-0 in points off of turnovers. *Lays on a thick layer of sarcasm* What a change of pace for the Bearcats to be the better and more aggressive defensive team.
Ellis Coming on Strong
My preseason pick for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year may not be at that level this season. He is playing four fewer minutes per game, but his production has remained largely the same (9.9 PPG 7.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG compared to 9.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.0 BPG last season). My prediction was predicated on the assumption that he would take a major step forward in his senior season. A lateral move has worked out just fine, but in the last few weeks he has shown the type of aggressiveness that led me to believe in him so greatly. He has recorded three double-doubles in the last five games, matching the total he had in the previous 24. That included a 10-point, 14-rebound, three-block masterpiece against ECU. If this is the Ellis the 'Cats get during the next month, they will be playing deep into March.
AAC Title Blueprint
The hope is still alive. It is small and it is quivering in the cold wind of March storms, but Cincinnati can still win the AAC regular season title. The Bearcats are currently a game back from Temple (which beat them twice) and No. 24 SMU (which they lost to once and play in the final game of the regular season). At 21-8 overall and 11-5 in AAC play, the 'Cats have likely secured a bid in the NCAA Tournament, but getting that AAC title and a top seed in the conference tourney sure would be nice.
Now, how do they go about accomplishing this goal? First, they have to win their next two games. That will be tough as they play at Houston, a team with a 21-8 overall mark of its own, before hosting SMU. With wins in those two games, they would just need Temple to fall flat in its last two games against Memphis and Tulane. It is unfortunate that the Owls have the easier ride, but this fight ain't over just yet.
Alas, the Coaches poll insulted the men in black in red yet again, but Cincinnati received a whole four votes in the AP poll this week. Let's not spend those all in one spot.
In ESPN's Joe Lunardi's most recent bracketology rankings, Cincinnati is listed as a No. 10 seed, matched up in the South Region against Dayton. Lunardi also has Cincinnati as one of the last four byes, or teams that don't have to play in the First Four round. CBS has the Bearcats a little lower, with Cincinnati seated as a No. 11 seed against Vanderbilt in the First Four. The higher ups here at SB Nation slid Cincinnati into its last four in, pitting it against Oregon State in a battle of No. 12 seeds in the First Four.
Highlight of the Week
Remember that Jacob Evans fellow I mentioned earlier? Well, he did this and for that, he gets several gold stars.
Quadri Moore Minutes Watch
After playing a total of three minutes against Tulsa and UConn, Moore played eight minutes against ECU. It was the most he has played since Jan. 24 against Tulane and only the third time since league play began that he has put in more than seven. He has 180 minutes overall and is on pace for 192.4 minutes for the regular season. He should at least get past 200 when all is said and done.
We all know what the goal is. Beat Houston on the road, exact revenge against SMU and get a little help from Temple and the Bearcats are your 2016 AAC regular season champions. Let's go.