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Game Preview: No. 15 Cincinnati Bearcats vs Connecticut Huskies

Winner plays Sunday, loser is Connecticut

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps there isn’t a more fitting path to the AAC Tournament title game than through the Connecticut Huskies.

The Bearcats will take on Connecticut in the semifinals of the AAC Tournament on Saturday, and they’ll do so in the XL Center in Hartford, CT, making this essentially a home game for the Huskies. This is a rematch of last year’s AAC four-overtime thriller, which saw Connecticut emerge with a 104-97 victory.

It was an instant classic game that saw the Huskies hit a 65-foot three-pointer as time expired at the end of the third overtime, and it was representative of so many games that came before it. The Bearcats lost six games by two points last season, including their NCAA matchup against Saint Joseph’s. The cumulative effect of those losses created a team desperate for good things to happen. Just listen to Mick Cronin talk about how badly the team needed a close win after their 55-54 victory over Iowa State earlier this season.

With the exception of Tre Scott’s missed dunk against Central Florida, the 2016-17 season has been very different. The Bearcats have consistently done the little things to win close games, and done the big things early in contests to keep them from becoming close games to begin with.

Tonight’s semifinal matchup with Connecticut is a chance for the Bearcats to truly rid themselves of last year’s demons.

Get to Know the Opponent

The Bearcats have beaten this Connecticut team twice already. They pulled out an 82-68 victory at home in early February, and then dominated them 67-47 to cap the regular season. Last time out, the Huskies just didn’t have an answer for Cincinnati’s frontcourt. Gary Clark dominated in the first half, and then Kyle Washington dominated in the second half. Connecticut’s 7-foot center is an imposing presence who has the ability to alter shots, but so far he’s lacked the skill to defend the interior passing and post moves in Clark and Washington’s repertoire.

The big issue, of course, is the Huskies’ lack of depth. This will be their third game in three nights, and this was a team lacking in depth to begin with. They’ve been decimated by injuries all season long, but Kevin Ollie and his team continue to find ways to win games.

Rodney Purvis is averaging 24.0 points and six rebounds per game so far in the tournament. The senior guard simply willed the Huskies to a first round victory over South Florida. Although, he’s now played 74 minutes the past two nights, so fatigue could become an issue against the Bearcats.

More possessions = more shots = more points = winning

All season long, people (myself included) have remarked that this is Mick Cronin’s most talented offensive team. The Bearcats even managed to lead the AAC in scoring this season at 74.8 points per game. However, their style play hasn’t quite caught up with their offensive prowess. Despite leading the AAC in scoring, they still play at one of the slowest paces in basketball. KenPom ranks them 328th in adjusted tempo at 63.6. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are 18-1 this season in games with at least 65 possessions. In fact, nearly all of their losses and close games (Iowa State, SMU, Tulsa, UCF, Rhode Island) were among their lowest possession games.

The message is clear. In past seasons, the Bearcats needed to protect themselves from their horrible offenses so they slowed the tempo and emphasized defense. This season, they need to push the pace and let Jacob Evans, Jarron Cumberland, Kevin Johnson, and Troy Caupain get as many shots as they can.

While I don’t expect the Bearcats to change who they are this late in the season, I won’t be surprised to see them push the pace and try to make that fatigue set in early for the Huskies. If they do, expect Cincinnati in the championship game tomorrow.

Prediction

That Connecticut crowd just wouldn’t let the Huskies die last night against Houston. Even after they dug themselves an early hole, the crowd gave them a clear advantage as they battled back. I suspect this will be a close game for about 25-30 minutes and then the Bearcats will start to pull away. I refuse to believe that Kevin Johnson, Troy Caupain, Jacob Evans, and Gary Clark would allow this team to lose after what happened last year. Cincinnati 71, Connecticut 60