It has occurred to me more than once this season that we may just be watching the best Cincinnati Bearcats team that Mick Cronin has ever assembled. As they continue to win game after game, that feeling gets stronger and stronger. The Bearcats are now 22-2 overall and a perfect 11-0 in conference play. They have won 15 games in a row and now we are nearly in mid-February. That means March is looming. Here’s some stuff to chew on as the fever pitch of the season continues.
Kyle Washington never disappeared, but he did got through a cold spell and was even benched. Those days are long over and have been. That doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate how well the 6’9” transfer from NC State has been playing recently, especially in the last week.
Washington ripped UConn apart last Saturday. With a career-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds. The Huskies just had no answer for the big man, whether he was scoring in close (8-of-13 from two-point range) or from distance (3-of-5 from beyond the arc), Washington could not be stopped. Then he continued his strong play with a 14 point, 11 rebound double-double last night in a 10-point win over UCF.
He has at least 10 points and eight rebounds in three-straight games and is averaging 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field since Jan. 7. I’d say he his hitting his stride at just the right time.
We’ve talked about the Bearcats’ three-point shooting before, whether its defending the arc or taking shots themselves. Over the last two games, UC has drained 21 three-pointers, including 12 in the win against the Huskies. Kevin Johnson has been the most lethal sniper in that time, making 5-of-10 combined. Of course the Bearcats are fortunate enough to have several other three-point shooting threats, but the emergence of Washington as a triple threat gives another edge to the offense. Plus, there’s the fact that Justin Jenifer just went 2-of-3 from distance in last night’s win over UCF.
In all UC is shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range this season, which is outside the top 150 nationally. However, the squad has found renewed success in conference play, bumping that number up to 37.8 percent.
What SMU Means
As I’ve been thinking about just how good UC is this season, it has flitted across my mind once or twice that the Bearcats should have their sights set on something more than just the Sweet 16, which seemed like the ceiling entering the campaign. With top 10 teams like Villanova, Kansas and Baylor all having a handful of losses (just like UC), it doesn’t seem crazy to think the Bearcats could force their way to the Elite Eight, Final Four and maybe even further than that.
That brings us to Sunday’s matchup with SMU. The Mustangs are an excellent team and UC just barely escaped their clutches when they met up at Fifth Third earlier this season. Playing on the road will make Sunday’s contest extremely difficult and could be the difference in determining the top seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. It also represents the last major test for the Bearcats before the postseason. Winning against the Mustangs again could go a long way in proving that UC is more than a fun story but a serious contender.
Still not in the top 10 in either the AP or Coaches poll, the Bearcats are just within reach, sitting at No. 11 in both.
As for KenPom, they have actually gone backward a bit, sitting at No. 20 currently, just behind No. 19 Oregon. What is concerning is that SMU is No. 16 according to KenPom, again adding weight to Sunday’s already bloated matchup.
Highlight of the Week
The Cincinnati ‘OopCats.
In case you didn’t figure it out already, UC’s next opponent is No. 25 SMU in Dallas this Sunday afternoon.