Of their six total losses last season, the most disappointing for the Cincinnati Bearcats was probably the 53-49 setback they were handed on the road by the UCF Knights on Feb. 26. The loss effectively crushed UC’s dreams of an American Athletic Conference regular season crown and was one of only two losses it had in the regular season after mid-December.
That stroll down memory lane brings us to Tuesday’s meeting between the Bearcats (15-2, 4-0 AAC) and the Knights in Orlando. It is the first time the two teams have clashed since that rock fight was decided by four points, so there should be a little more edge to this contest than UC’s 78-55 win over USF this past Saturday.
Who are the UCF Knights?
Johnny Dawkins deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in less than two years as the UCF head coach. The former Stanford leader pushed the Knights to a 24-12 overall record a year ago and he’s right on pace to have a similar success rate this year. At 12-5 overall and 3-2 in league play, the Knights are right in the thick of things for the No. 3 spot in the AAC. That’s high praise considering UC and Wichita State seemingly have the top two slots in the league on lock.
However, UCF failed to capitalize against a reeling UConn program in its last outing. While playing up north, the Knights were squeezed in a 62-53 loss. It is the Knights who are usually doing the squeezing, as they rank fourth in the country in adjusted defense and are allowing 59.1 points per game.
So the defense is great. Dawkins just needs to figure out a way to get his offense going. UCF is only scoring 64.6 points per game while playing at one of the more sluggish paces in the country. Add on top of that the Knights’ issues with shooting from the foul line and beyond the arc and you’ve got a team that defends well out of necessity.
Part of the reason the Knights don’t do much scoring outside of the arc is because their most productive offensive threats are both better in the paint. Tacko Fall is the 7’6” shot-blocking machine who leads the team with 11.6 points and adds 7.2 rebounds per game. He is playing five minutes less per game than he did a year ago, but is taking more shots and leads the team in PER (27.9). If he shot better than 47.8 percent from the free-throw line he would be close to unstoppable. A.J. Davis (6’9”) is another big guy who rebounds (8.5 RPG) and scores (10.8 PPG). This is a game that Gary Clark and Kyle Washington will need to be at their best defensively, while Nysier Brooks, Tre Scott and maybe even some of the younger frontcourt guys get extra work.
Remembering Last Year
If you were going to try to convince someone to start watching college basketball, the last meeting between the Knights and Bearcats would not be an ideal starting point. The Bearcats posted an offensive rating of 79 as a team in that one. They also had an effective field goal percentage of 36.1 while shooting below 30 percent from the floor. If it weren’t for Jacob Evans and his 17 points, UC may not have even gotten past 40 points, since Washington went 3-for-15, Jarron Cumberland went 3-for-8 and Gary Clark only made one of his four field goal attempts.
Interestingly enough, Fall did not dominate in the win for the Knights, as he had only seven points and eight rebounds, although he did block four shots. Instead, it was B.J. Taylor and his 27 points that carried them over the edge. Taylor has only played one game this season and has been sidelined with a foot injury. Initial reports said Taylor would miss four to six weeks, but there has not been any update since.
That loss was not the only meeting with the Knights last season. The Bearcats also won 60-50 at home earlier in the campaign. Fall played better in that one, making all seven of his field goal tries for 14 points as well as 11 rebounds. It was still a difficult game on offense, with the Bearcats posting an offensive rating of 96.8, but they only turned the ball over four times and Washington scored 14 points to go with 11 rebounds. Evans, Clark and Washington combined to collect 11 steals as well.
The battle inside is going to be critical in this one, but Clark and Washington should be up to the challenge, especially since Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks can both step in to add depth and keep them fresh. The Bearcats can’t afford to start off as slowly as they did over the weekend against USF, so it will be critical to defend as well as ever, since you know that’s how UCF is going to try to win. Without Taylor, the Knights are not the same team that beat UC last year, so as long as the Bearcats can squeeze out enough offense, they should get their ninth-straight win.
Cincinnati 65 UCF 55