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Game Preview: No. 14 Cincinnati Bearcats at USF Bulls

Winning has become second nature to these Bearcats. Playing on the road won’t change that.

South Florida v Cincinnati Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

This is a fun tweet.

That’s right, the Cincinnati Bearcats (14-2, 3-0 AAC), who are currently ranked No. 14 in the country, are on the short list of national title contenders. That’s what you get when you win 14 of your first 16 games and dominate your way to a 3-0 start in American Athletic Conference play. On Saturday, the Bearcats will hit the road to play the USF Bulls, a team in a much different situation, but a team that needs to be beaten for tweets like the one up there to keep coming.

Who are the USF Bulls?

In their first year under Brian Gregory, the Bulls are actually playing their best basketball in years. That is more damning of their play these last few seasons than praise for this year’s version. With a record of 7-10, the Bulls clearly aren’t contending for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but those seven wins match their entire output from all of last season. Yes, the Bulls have been pretty putrid at hoops over the last five years, with fewer than 10 wins in each of the last three years.

However, the cracks are starting to show, as following a pretty easy non-confrence schedule, USF (7-10, 0-4 AAC) is reverting back to its former self. It has lost four-straight games, all in conference play, and lost most of those by a lot. The Bulls fell by 19 to Houston, 40 to SMU and 38 to Wichita State. The only close game was against East Carolina (67-65), which is the only team worse than the Bulls in the conference according to KenPom. Speaking of, the Bulls rank 308th in that metric, 315th in adjusted offense and 251st in adjusted defense.

In their most recent game, the Bulls were outclassed by Wichita State. Six of the eight players to see the floor recorded an offensive rating below 100, while every contributor had a defensive rating of at least 120. They also shot just 36.4 percent from the floor and accumulated 18 rebounds. That’s total. Not in a single half. The poor offensive work is par for the course, as the Bulls are only scoring 63.5 points per game, but the rebounding was bad even for USF.

Payton Banks (12.7 PPG) is the best scorer on the roster, even though he is shooting just .400/.356/.839. He is at least a pretty decent three-point shooter if nothing else. Stephen Jiggets (11.1 PPG) and Tulio Da Silva (8.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG) are others to keep an eye on.

Do the Bearcats have the two best players in the AAC?

I came across this last night.

That would be quite a leap of imagination. Luckily, this outlet is not one that would make such a mistake. I would actually go one step further and say there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Bearcats have the No. 1 and No. 2 best players in the AAC.

Gary Clark and Jacob Evans have both been incredible this season. Evans is scoring more than anyone on the roster (13.8 PPG), but he is also leading the team in assists (3.4) while ranking second in blocks (1.2 PG). But then there’s Clark, who has been incredible, boasting a PER of 30.3, which leads all players in the league.

I’d be willing to listen to arguments that SMU’s Shake Milton, Houston’s Robert Gray Jr., and Wichita State’s Landry Shamet are all in the conversation for top player in the conference, but there’s no other team that can claim to have two contenders.

Streaks and Away Games

In following with our Twitter-inspired openers, here’s another tweet.

Congratulations to Texas Southern, but who is No. 1? Why that would be the Cincinnati Bearcats, who have won 35-straight games at home. However, this is a road game, so that streak doesn’t really mean much. For the Bearcats, who rank second in the country in adjusted defense, this will be just the fourth true road game of the season. They are 2-1 in the first three, with the lone loss against Xavier.

Even if playing on the road hasn’t been something they’ve done a lot, winning has been. The Bearcats are riding a seven-game winning streak and have not lost in more than a month. Their most recent victory was a 76-56 thumping of SMU. Clark had an offensive rating of 173 in that game as he scored 18 points to go with eight rebounds. Evans added 18 points, four rebounds and four assists while posting an equally ridiculous 140 offensive rating. Lost in the shuffle was the work of Justin Jenifer, who had an offensive rating of 133 thanks to seven points and four assists.

Prediction Time!

Both of these teams have had nearly a week to rest and prepare. With such even footing, the scales fall way to the side of the Bearcats, even if they are playing on the road. USF’s inefficient offense will be exposed against the Bearcats always punishing defense while Clark and Evans do their stuff.

Cincinnati 79 USF 51