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AAC Championship Game Preview: No. 15 Cincinnati vs No. 12 SMU

Bearcats hope to cut down the nets for the first time in the Mick Cronin era

NCAA Basketball: AAC Conference Tournament-Connecticut vs Cincinnati David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Well, this is the championship game we’ve all been secretly (or openly) hoping would happen.

The No. 15 Cincinnati Bearcats (29-4, 16-2 American) will take on the No. 12 SMU Mustangs (29-4, 17-1 American) for a chance to cut down the nets and secure an automatic bid in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

It will be the third meeting of the season between the two teams. Cincinnati won the first game 66-64, thanks to a basketball that actually defied the laws of nature by somehow hitting every inch of this rim and not falling through the net.

SMU won the second game 60-51 after coming back from a nine point deficit with 15 minutes remaining. The Mustangs used a 21-2 run to completely flip that game and take control. The Bearcats were held to a season low 54 possessions and made just 17 field goals in the entire game.

Get to Know The Opponent

In some ways these two teams are mirror images of each other. Even to the point that when someone looks in the mirror their reflection is laterally inverted. Well, the same is true with these two teams. Take a look at their offensive and defense efficiency numbers according to KenPom.

They are equally good at opposite facets of the game. They also play at a very similar to pace each other — very slow. Cincinnati comes into the game ranked 327th in Adjusted Tempo, and 294th in Average Possession Length. SMU is at 330th in Adjusted Tempo, and 324th in Average Possession Length.

Add it all up, and you have two very evenly matched teams playing at similar levels offensively and defensively. It’s no wonder both of their previous games have been so competitive.

The biggest difference between the two teams is depth. Besides Connecticut, the Mustangs are the team with the least amount of depth in the league. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are arguably the league’s deepest team. SMU used just one bench player in their 70-59 victory over Central Florida on Saturday. Four of their five starters played 35 minutes or more. Semi Ojeleye, the team’s leading scorer and star player, has played 38 minutes in both games.

Captain Caupain

Troy Caupain has played excellent so far in this tournament. He’s averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in both games, and has only turned the ball over twice in 67 minutes of action. This is someone that has the ball in his hands in nearly every possession, yet he routinely turns the ball over less than the rest of his teammates.

Today’s game has the potential to be historic for Caupain. He’s just two assists shy of Deonta Vaughn to become Cincinnati’s all-time assists leader. If he has the kind of game he’s capable of, he could become the all-time assists leader, cut down the nets for the first time, and get named the AAC Tournament MVP. That’s a pretty good day.

Prediction

I’ve said it all year — there’s just something special about this Cincinnati team. However, the same can be said about SMU too. Even ranked at 15th and 12th respectively, they might be the most overlooked teams in the country. The idea of both of them getting five seeds in the NCAA tournament is just absurd to me. I believe both teams three seeds regardless of what happens in today’s game. The committee has to recognize how well these two teams have played against very good teams throughout the season.

It pains me to say it, but I think SMU might be tiny bit better than Cincinnati. At the very least, they’re better at identifying who they are, and designing a game plan that allows their individual skills to flourish. As I discussed in yesterday’s preview, I think the Bearcats have a bit of an identity crisis. For the first time in program history, they have the talent to play an up-tempo, three-point-happy style of offense like the Golden State Warriors, but they insist on these slow, methodical halfcourt possessions that don’t result in enough shots for their shooters.

That said, fatigue is a major issue in conference tournaments. This will be both teams third game in three days, and SMU just doesn’t have enough to bodies to stay with the Bearcats if this game goes down to the wire. Mick Cronin even took precautionary steps in Friday’s game to ensure nobody played more than 29 minutes just so they’d be ready for the last five minutes of today’s game. So, Im giving the edge to the Bearcats in a low-scoring slugfest. Cincinnati 55, SMU 49