Its tough to boil down a game of basketball (or any sport for that matter) into one deciding factor. By its team sport nature, basketball requires a number of players working in unison for a common goal. A great performance from one, can outweigh a bad performance from another, but the same can happen in reverse.
However, although no single matchup or player can entirely dictate who wins and who loses, there will always be some important areas of contention. When the Cincinnati Bearcats face Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament tomorrow night, here will be the most vital matchups.
Troy Caupain vs. Kamau Stokes
These are the two players who will have the ball in their hands the most. Well, at least at the beginning of possessions. Stokes leads the Wildcats in usage percentage (22.5) and although Caupain is behind every other starter besides Kevin Johnson in that stat for UC, both players are the top on their respective teams when it comes to feeding scorers. Caupain averaged 4.5 assists per game this season and posted an assist percentage of 25.4 percent. Stokes boosted his assist total quite a bit in his sophomore year (4.2 PG from 2.7 PG), working to get the Wildcats’ scorers open while being one of the most productive offensive threats himself. Caupain has the edge in size (6’3” vs. 6’0”) and experience, and Stokes’ proclivity for turnovers (2.9 PG) will be something Caupain and the rest of the Bearcats’ hungry defense will try to take advantage. (More on that later).
Jacob Evans vs. Wesley Iwundu
The leading scorers for their respective teams, Evans and Iwundu are both sizeable slashers who can shoot from most spots on the floor. Evans has been exceptional as a three-point shooter this season, nailing 41.8 percent of his attempts from distance, and I mean distance, as he has not been afraid to pull up from beyond NBA range. Iwundu has gotten better every year and became more confident in his three-point stroke as a senior, attempting 2.4 shots per game. His career-high before that was 0.9. Inwudu has the height and experience advantage like Caupain had on Stokes, but Evans is the marginally more effective offensive threat, with a true shooting percentage of .593, an effective field goal percentage of .567 and PER of 22.9 compared to Iwundu’s .580, .528 and 19.6. Evans also has better peripherals on defense, with a defensive rating of 95.7 compared to Iwundu’s 99.3, although the difference isn’t really as drastic as those numbers would indicate.
UC’s Frontcourt vs. KSU’s Frontcourt
Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are the best post players in this contest and its not particularly close. D.J. Johnson is a 6’9” forward who averaged 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while Dean Wade put up 9.3 and 4.6 with his 6’8” frame. Wade lives more beyond the arc, attempting 2.8 threes per game and isn’t a great rebounder. Johnson is an efficient scorer close to the rim but set a career-low of 13.5 in rebounding percentage this past season. We all know Clark and Washington are much more dominant in the paint, or at least can be. Clark (10.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.1 BPG) may have taken a bit of a step back in the counting numbers as a junior, but he was still excellent while Washington (13.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG) was there to pick up the slack. Plus there’s the fact that the Bearcats will have the height advantage when it comes to bench options, assuming Mick Cronin turns to Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott at any point.
UC’s Ability to Force TOs vs. Kansas State’s Ability to Limit Them
Turnover percentage is one of sports-reference.com’s four factors to winning and the Bearcats frequently win that one. They should win it once again against Kansas State, which may be similar to UC when it comes to free-throw shooting and pace of play, but does not share the same stingy ball control. You can whine about UC’s low turnover total being a symptom of its glacial tempo on offense, but the fact remains that it committed the 14th fewest turnovers in the country this season (343). KSU was not as great, ranking 256th (446).
That alone wouldn’t be enough to think this area could decide the game but when you add in UC’s ability to create turnovers, it begins to look more bleak for the Wildcats. The Bearcats recorded the 27th-most steals in the country (255) this season. Five different players average at least one theft per game and you can bet the aggression on defense is not going to suddenly disappear in Sacramento.
Of course these are just a smattering of areas of focus in this game. You could very well paint a different picture, but if UC wins these matchups like they should, they will be in the best position to win the game itself.