They may not get any bigger than this, folks. The SMU Mustangs (14-3, 4-0 AAC) will travel face the Cincinnati Bearcats (13-2, 3-0 AAC) on Thursday night for a match-up of the indisputable top two teams in the American Athletic Conference. The Mustangs will put their 10-game winning streak on the line, while the Bearcats risk a six-game winning streak.
Get To Know The Opponent
SMU matches up really well with the Bearcats, and could potentially give them more than they can handle. The Mustangs are a big, athletic and versatile team that is very skilled at rebounding. They are relentless on the glass, and especially good at offensive rebounding which potentially exploits one of the Bearcats biggest weaknesses. SMU is ranked second in country in offensive rebounding percentage, while the Bearcats are ranked just 191st in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
The offense flows through junior transfer Semi Ojeleye. Ojeleye transferred from Duke after the 2014-15 season, and has meant as much to this Mustangs team as Kyle Washington has meant to the Bearcats. He’s averaging 17.9 points per game to go along with 7.7 rebounds, and has been involved in 25.1 percent of SMU’s possessions.
SMU is one of the slower paced teams the Bearcats will face all season, ranking just 339th in the nation in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. Cincinnati is just 313th in the nation in adjusted tempo, which means we can expect a very similar game to the one against Iowa State earlier in the season. Both teams are good at being patient and waiting for the defense to give them quality looks.
The Mustangs seem to be a sure-fire NCAA tournament lock. They already have quality wins over Pittsburgh, TCU, Memphis and Temple, and still have additional games remaining against Cincinnati and Temple that can help improve their resume.
Free Throw Shooting
Given that this should be a very low possession game, I expect free throw shooting to become a major storyline. he Bearcats have been terrible from the line this year, ranking just 303rd in KenPom’s free throw percentage ranking. They shot 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) against Houston, 13-of-20 (65 percent) against Temple and 10-of-23 (43.5 percent) against Marshall. SMU is ranked ninth in the country for fewest fouls per game, so the Bearcats will need to take advantage of every opportunity to go to the free throw line in order win on Thursday.
The university has gone to great lengths to make this game an event on campus. The Bearcats will be rolling out their new Under Armour uniforms for the game and fans are encouraged to dress in red for a ‘ring of red’. It’s also the first week students will be back from winter break, so I expect to see a packed and raucous crowd at Fifth Third Arena on Thursday.
The Bearcats have been able to withstand difficult tests in close games so far this season, and I suspect they’ll pull this one out too. It’s likely to be a very tight, low-scoring game, but I think Gary Clark comes up big and puts the Bearcats over the top for the win. Final score: Cincinnati 53, SMU 49.