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Game Preview: USF Bulls at No. 19 Cincinnati Bearcats

A wild American Athletic Conference foe appeared.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Its back to business for the No. 19 Cincinnati Bearcats. On Thursday night, they took a trip outside of American Athletic Conference land to do battle with crosstown rival Xavier, but on Sunday afternoon they will face the USF Bulls with their focus now firmly set on winning the league.

UC is now 18-2 overall this season and that includes a perfect mark in conference play (7-0). The Bearcats are also undefeated at home this season (12-0) and have won their last 20 games at Fifth Third Arena, a record during the Mick Cronin era.

Meet the Opponent

USF is not good at basketball. The Bulls rank 285th according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin. They are particularly bad offensively, ranking 311th in adjusted offensive efficiency (95.6). Surprisingly, those bad peripherals haven’t stopped them from already closing in on last year’s entire win total, although that is more of a symptom of continued disappointing returns than anything else. At 6-13, they need only two wins to match last year’s eight victories.

Getting there is going to be tough if they keep playing like they have been against AAC foes. The Bulls are 0-8 in conference action and have lost 10 of their last 11 games overall. They are also just 1-6 in road games, a scary fact for a team facing a UC squad that dominates at home.

Since the indefinite suspension of Jahmal McMurray, 6’4” guards Geno Thorpe and Troy Holston have served as the team’s best offensive threats. Thorpe is averaging 13.4 points per game but that is on an effective field goal percentage of just .400. Holston is netting 11.7 points a game and is the team’s most potent three-point shooter, averaging 2.6 made threes a game while averaging 7.3 attempts. Tulio Da Silva, a 6’7” redshirt freshman, is the guy to watch in the paint, averaging 9.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

In the Bulls’ 81-60 loss to UConn on Wednesday, Holston had 15 points and Da Silva had 12. Meanwhile, Michael Bibby nailed 4-of-6 three-point tries and finished with 14 points in 21 minutes. Bibby is shooting a team-high 39.3 percent from long range and also leads the team in three-point attempt rate (.693).

Cincinnati Offense is Better Than You Think

Cincinnati plays defense. Blah, blah, blah. Rinse. Repeat.

If you are a national college basketball broadcaster or writer those are your touchstone talking points when you cover the Bearcats. Perhaps some edits need to be made.

UC beat Xavier on Thursday by, and you may want to sit down for this, playing efficient offense. Even when the Bearcats entered halftime trailing 44-36 they had still shot 48.1 percent from the floor. They did even better in the final 20 minutes, eclipsing the 50 percent shooting mark. The team also had five players in double figures, including Jacob Evans, who scored 21 points in the victory.

The Bearcats are 39th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (113.6) even though they are still playing at a rather slow pace, ranking 313th in adjusted tempo (65.6). Still, slow, methodical and efficient is a strategy for offensive success.

...But That Foul Shooting

However, UC has shown a continued inability to make free throws which will be a problem as we get closer to March. The Bearcats shot below 50 percent from the charity stripe against Xavier (18-of-37) and are 309th in the nation in the statistic (.647). This has to improve or it will, not could, will come back to haunt them.

Outlook

UC is really, really good. Possibly even National Title winning good. USF is really, really bad. There is nothing going in the Bulls’ favor in this one, unless they employ the Hack-a-Shaq strategy for 40 minutes.