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AAC Tournament Championship Game Guide: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. SMU Mustangs

It was always going to end like this.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Methodist at Cincinnati David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

How to Watch

  • Tipoff: 3:15 p.m. ET
  • Location: XL Center Hartford, Connecticut
  • Television: ESPN
  • Announcing crew: Dave O’Brien (play-by-play), Doris Burke (analyst) and Andy Katz (sideline reporter)
  • Radio: 700 WLW
  • Announcing crew: Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Chuck Machock (analyst)
  • Series history: Even though Cincinnati leads the all-time series 7-4, this was a hotly contested rivalry during the 2016-17 campaign, with each team earning a single-digit victory on their home floor.

Season Series Rewind

Cincinnati knew it was going to have its hands full when SMU came to Fifth Third Arena in mid-January. The Mustangs did not disappoint, as the Bearcats had to scratch and claw their way to a 66-64 victory. Although they never trailed in the second half and actually led by as many as 13 points, SMU just didn’t go away. Troy Caupain scored 16 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists in the victory, while Gary Clark added 18 points and six boards. UC was actually outscored in the paint (24-20), outrebounded (37-27) and had no answer for Sterling Brown (20 points, 11 rebounds, 8-of-12 shooting), but they still managed to escape with the win.

The same could not be said when UC visited SMU on Feb. 12. The Bearcats were riding a 15-game winning streak into the contest and actually led by nine points with just over 16 minutes left to play. However, the Mustangs connected on 62.5 percent of their shots in the second half and overcame UC for a 60-51 triumph. Jacob Evans netted 15 points and Kevin Johnson had 13, but UC was atrocious offensively as a team, especially in the final 20 minutes, shooting just 34.7 percent from the field overall and 25.9 percent in the last frame. The win catapulted SMU into the good graces of the national media and made it the favorite in the AAC. In fact, the Mustangs have not lost since that two-point setback at Cincinnati, winning 15 games in a row themselves.

How We Got Here

Neither of these teams played on day one of the tournament as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. But both have taken different roads to the AAC title game. The Bearcats have had a pretty easy time of it while SMU has actually shown some signs of weakness for the first time in months.

Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans combined for 41 points and Troy Caupain did pretty much everything (15 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) to carry UC to an easy 80-61 win over Tulsa in the quarterfinals. Then, in the semifinals, the Bearcats got a chance to avenge three year’s worth of AAC Tournament sadness, as they faced off with UConn. These weren’t the same Huskies that took UC to four overtimes a year ago, however, as the Bearcats controlled the game from the jump, much like they did during both regular season meetings. They never trailed in the game and got huge efforts from Gary Clark (25 points, eight rebounds), Evans (21 points on 5-of-7 shooting) and Caupain (18 points, five assists) on the way to the 81-71 decision.

When SMU hit the floor against No. 9 seed East Carolina on Friday, the expectation was that it would be a blowout win decided before halftime. That’s kind of what happened. The Mustangs shot 62.7 percent from the floor in the first half and led 43-21 at the break. However, the Pirates came charging back over the final 20 minutes, forcing 10 turnovers, draining 11 three-pointers and even tying the game at 77-77 with under a minute to play. However, AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye scored the final four points of the game and the Mustangs advanced.

In the semifinals they ran into a tough UCF team but once again were able to fend off an upstart squad and take a 70-59 win, led by 22 points from Sterling Brown.

What’s Next?

The NCAA Tournament, of course. There is no next round of the AAC tourney. This one is for all the proverbial marbles. UC and SMU are easily the two best team in the AAC so it is altogether fitting that they will meet to decide a champion. Since that loss in Dallas a few weeks ago, the Bearcats have been hoping for a chance to avenge the setback and let everyone know who the real king of the AAC jungle is. By this evening we will know if they accomplished that feat. (Spoiler alert: I think they will).