Well, here we are. The regular season, season finale against No. 24 SMU.
While the Mustangs aren't doing anything along the lines of postseason play, due to a NCAA ban, Cincinnati is still very much in the conversation, despite losing a road game to Houston earlier this week. To feel a little more comfortable heading into Selection Sunday though, the Bearcats will need to beat an SMU team that barely got the best of Cincinnati earlier this season.
Meet the Opponent
On January 7th, Cincinnati nearly took down the undefeated SMU Mustangs in Dallas, but an 11-2 SMU run to close the game ultimately was too much for the Bearcats and Cincinnati fell 59-57. It was a game in which SMU shot 51.2 % from the field, compared to Cincinnati's 37.7% and racked up 11 blocks, including a monster one late on a Troy Caupain attempt. The Bearcats, however, did bring their patented tenacity on defense to Dallas, accumulating 12 steals in the game. Farad Cobb led the Bearcats in scoring with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting from three, while Gary Clark added a double-double, scoring 13 points and adding 11 rebounds.
SMU's success starts with senior guard Nic Moore, who averages 16.1 points and 5.3 assists per game. He scored 14 points in their first matchup, coming on strong at the end for the Mustangs. Beyond Moore, SMU has four players who average double-digit points totals, including Ben Moore (11.9 ppg), Jordan Tolbert (11.7 ppg), Shake Milton (10.8 ppg) and Sterling Brown (10.1 ppg). Brown was ejected in the first half of January's contest.
As a team, the 25-4 (13-4) Mustangs shot the ball well, knocking down 50% of their field goals this season and shooting 42.7% from three. Given Cincinnati's struggles guarding the three-ball, that has to be a point of emphasis heading into this game. It also is worth mentioning that SMU's last game was an 80-54 blowout of UConn, Cincinnati's opponent in the first round of the AAC Conference Tournament.
Gary Clark Slumping?
Gary Clark has had a tremendous sophomore season and has, at times, been the only consistent force offensively (and defensively) for the Bearcats as Cincinnati leaned on his talent and composure. While Clark is currently averaging 10.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, Clark has had a couple down games in a row as of late.
Clark has scored a combined 10 points in the last two games after averaging a notch over 15 points per game in the previous three. The rebound numbers have still been there, at least in Thursday's loss to Houston where he racked up 13, but Cincinnati has struggled with consistent offensive production during his slump. Clark will be called upon against SMU, after his double-double in the previous meeting, and it is essential that the sophomore steps up.
While Cincinnati is loaded with talent, Clark is an incredibly valuable, consistent piece of the Bearcats success. If he continues to slump against the Mustangs, or through tournament play, Cincinnati could be in trouble.
It's not really a Senior "Night" technically with a noon tipoff, but regardless, it is the final home game for Cincinnati's four seniors; Octavius Ellis, Coreontae DeBerry, Farad Cobb and Shaq Thomas. Cobb and Thomas has been struggling with injuries as of late while Ellis has had some up and downs this season, although he has played more consistent in recent games. DeBerry, meanwhile, has been playing well with his limited playing time.
All four seniors have brought a lot to the program in their time at Cincinnati and it would be good to see them go out with a big win in front of home crowd over a ranked opponent like SMU, especially with so much on the line. Ellis, DeBerry, Cobb and Thomas all have the talent to lead the Bearcats into an interesting March Madness with the opportunity to make some noise, if they can close out the season strong with a win at Fifth Third Arena against the Mustangs and have a good showing in the American Athletic Conference Tournament next week.