Cincinnati has two regular season contests left this season with the first being a road test against the Houston Cougars. Cincinnati enters the game on a two-game winning streak, having beaten UConn and East Carolina over the past two weeks.
Houston, while not frequently talked about in the national media, is a talented team at 21-8 overall with an 11-6 record in the American Conference. With wins over SMU, Tulsa, Memphis, Temple and UConn over the past couple months, this Cougars team presents an interesting challenge for the Bearcats.
Meet the Opponent
Cincinnati and Houston last met on January 13 when the Bearcats defeated the Cougars, 70-59, at Fifth Third Arena. The Bearcats were led in that game by Kevin Johnson's 15 points, but Farad Cobb, Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis all added double-digit point totals with 14, 14 and 13, respectively. It was a game controlled by the Cincinnati defense as the Bearcats forced 13 turnovers in the first half alone (17 when all said and done) and only committed four turnovers themselves in the first half.
Houston leads the AAC in scoring offense, averaging 78.5 points per game, and will matchup with Cincinnati's top-rated scoring defense in the AAC, only allowing 61.6 points per game. Rob Gray Jr., Devonta Pollard and Damyean Dotson are big parts of that. Gray averages 16.4 ppg, Pollard averages 14.0 ppg and Dotson adds 13.9 per game. Houston keeps the score totals high because of their open, spread out offensive attack, which impacts the team's effectiveness in the paint and should allow Clark, Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry to control the lane. Dotson leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per contest while Pollard adds 5.7 boards per game.
Houston is a good three-point shooting team, knocking down 35.1% of their three-point attempts. In their previous matchup with the Bearcats, Houston hit 10-of-22 (45.5%) shots from deep, including 5-of-6 from LeRon Barnes, who finished the game with 17 points to lead the Cougars. Despite Cincinnati's defensive prowess, the three-point shot has been a thorn in the Bearcats side all season long. Look for Houston's effectiveness from deep to be a telling stat.
Cincinnati seems to be hitting a bit of a stride over the past month of the season or so and a lot of it has to do with players stepping up in big ways in big games. We've talked about Clark's excellence this season, Ellis' resurgence and the heroics of Troy Caupain, but freshman Jacob Evans has been steadily improving this season, just in time for March Madness.
Evans is coming off a career-high 18 points against East Carolina, in which he went 7-of-12 from the field and 4-of-9 from deep and isn't far removed from a 13-point outing against UConn a couple weeks ago. With Cobb hobbled this week with a knee sprain and Shaq Thomas still taking it easy heading into tournament season (groin), Evans will be called upon once again.
In recent weeks, Evans has answered the call and it will be fun to see how he plays against a solid Houston squad on the road. in a game the Bearcats need.
With two regular season games remaining, the AAC Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament loom. Cincinnati still has an outside shot at the regular season conference title, if the Bearcats win-out and Temple loses both of their two remaining games. Obviously, even if Cincinnati can't take the regular season conference crown, the better they finish, the better their seeding for the AAC Tournament.
Additionally, Cincinnati is still pushing for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. In recent weeks, the Bearcats have settled in as a "Last Four In" team in the eyes of many. While they have further legitimized their resume for the Big Dance over the last month, if Cincinnati falls to Houston, the Bearcats could very much be on the outside looking in, especially with a tough game against SMU wrapping up regular season play.
With Houston pushing for a NCAA Tournament berth as well, Cincinnati will need to play sharp on the road, if they want to push their two-game winning streak to three.