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Game Preview: No. 22 Cincinnati Bearcats vs Houston Cougars

Houston presents the first real road challenge of the AAC schedule for the Bearcats.

NCAA Basketball: Tulane at Cincinnati David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati travels to Houston on Saturday looking for its sixth consecutive victory. The Bearcats started American Athletic conference play with a hard-fought victory on the road against Temple, and a blowout victory at home against Tulane. Houston is one of the top teams in the conference this year, and home to the one of the league’s best players in Rob Gray Jr.. KenPom gives the Bearcats at least a 64% chance of winning each game left on their schedule, with the only exceptions being this game agains Houston and February 12th’s road contest against SMU. Expect a close, difficult game against a very experienced team.

Get To Know The Opponent

The Cougars have a 12-3 record on the season, and have won their first three games in conference play. Their record might be a bit deceiving though, given that they haven’t played a lot of top-level talent yet. Their best wins so far are over Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and they’ve lost to LSU, Arkansas and Harvard. Cincinnati should be the best team they face all season, which means Saturday’s game will be a big deal on campus.

Houston is one of the most experienced teams in college basketball with 10 juniors and seniors combined on the roster. The Cougars are led by Gray Jr., a junior guard who is averaging 20.4 points per game along with 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Gray missed the Cougars’ game against Tulsa on Wednesday night due to the flu, but is expected to play on Saturday.

Houston will definitely need him, because it is not a particularly deep team. Gray and teammate Damyean Dotson combined to score 50 of the Cougars’ 70 points in their 70-56 victory over South Florida last week while the remaining three starters contributed just three points. They were just barely able to beat Tulsa — a middling team without much offensive firepower — without Gray. The Cougars actually trailed 32-28 at halftime before fighting back to win the game in the final minute.

Sharpshooter Wes VanBeck averages 24.3 minutes per game off the bench and 8.9 points per game. He scored a career-high 16 points filling in for Gray in thei win against Tulsa.

The X-factor for Houston might be sophomore guard Galen Robinson Jr. Robinson will be tasked with guarding Troy Caupain who he held to just one point on 0-of-10 shooting in their first matchup last season. Caupain responded with 19 points in their second meeting, but the Bearcats lost that game 69-56.

Guard Defense Could Be Difference

Kevin Johnson has played especially well over the past five games. He’s hit at least five shots in four out of the past five games and as usual, has led the way defensively. He and Caupain will need to turn in excellent defensive performances against Dotson and Gray if the Bearcats hope to escape with a victory. The Cougars don’t receive a lot of scoring from their front court, so the Bearcats will likely put additional pressure on the backcourt.

Cincinnati’s great defensive equalizer all year has been the fact that their bigs like Gary Clark and Tre Scott are able to switch off screens and still defend the opposing guards. That advantage will certainly be tested by Gray and Dotson on Saturday. If the Bearcats are able to limit Gray from getting to the basket then it could be a long night for the Cougars.

Prediction

I think the Bearcats are likely to win this game thanks to dumb luck and timing. They’re visiting Houston just before the majority of campus gets back from winter break, and they’ve had an entire week to prepare, while Houston had to prepare for and then play against Tulsa mid-week. It doesn’t help that they had to fight hard to win that game. Combine that with Gray still getting over the flu, and I think the Bearcats are in good shape to run the winning streak to six. Final score: Cincinnati 71, Houston 62