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Game Preview: East Carolina Pirates at No. 12 Cincinnati Bearcats

Saturday is for basketball again.

NCAA BASKETBALL: JAN 15 Cincinnati at East Carolina Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Can you even remember the last time the No. 12 Cincinnati Bearcats lost? I’m not sure they ever have.

In all seriousness, the Bearcats (16-2) have just piled up the wins, finding ways to get those Ws in numerous ways. During their current nine-game winning streak, the Bearcats have had some blowouts (Cleveland State, Memphis), thrilling finishes (at Temple) and comebacks (at USF and at UCF). On Saturday, they return home and hope for a more garden variety victory in a matchup against the East Carolina Pirates at BB&T Arena.

Who are the East Carolina Pirates?

They aren’t the worst team in the American Athletic Conference, at least not anymore. Thanks to two games against USF, the Pirates have managed to win two games in league play. They absolutely destroyed the Bulls 90-52 in their most recent game this past Wednesday. I guess USF put all its juice into trying to beat the Bearcats last weekend, because losing by nearly 40 points to a team ranked 312th in the country by KenPom is pretty pathetic.

But we’re not here to talk about the Bulls (who, let’s not forget, had a 21-11 lead over the Bearcats at one point last weekend), but to discuss the Pirates. It’s been an odd year for them, as they are playing under a different head coach than they had when the season started. Jeff Lebo decided to hang it up at the end of November, opening things up for Michael Perry. The Pirates have gone 6-6 under Perry and are 8-10 overall.

B.J. Tyson is the scorer to watch. He plays nearly 35 minutes per game and is scoring 15.3 points a night. He is shooting .440/.325/.812 and just had 11 points against the Bulls. While Taylor has been consistent in scoring in double figures all season, bench shooter Shawn Williams is heating up. He scored a career-high 22 points on Wednesday and that was after scoring 17 against Houston. The redshirt freshman guard could help clean up ECU’s putrid three-point shooting. He has made 7-of-11 treys over the last four games, which is great by itself, but even better considering the Pirates are shooting 27.7 percent from beyond the arc as a team, ranking 348th in the country.

The Four Scorers of the ap-UC-alypse

I can’t decide if I’m proud or ashamed of that subhead.

Anyway. Jacob Evans reached 1,000 career points this week. With 1,012 points, according to Sports Reference, the junior swingman is now one of four players on the current roster to have reached the millennium mark. The others are Gary Clark (1,228), Kyle Washington (1,060) and Cane Broome (1,296), although Broome netted 1,157 of those at Sacred Heart. Unsurprisingly, those four are among the most important offensive threats for the Bearcats. Obviously Evans and Clark are the primary options, with Washington another key cog in the starting lineup. Meanwhile, Broome is contributing only 8.7 points per game, but he ranks fourth on the team in points per 40 minutes (17.4) behind Washington (19.4), Clark (18.9) and Evans (17.6).

Jarron Cumberland is not yet a 1,000-point member, and it would be crazy if he was. He has played in 53 career games and only 18 as a starter, but still accumulated 483 points in less than two years of play. Assuming he remains healthy and sticks around for four years, he will get to 1,000 points easily.

Of course, it’s hard to remember there is so much scoring talent on this team after what the Bearcats did against UCF, registering a total of 49 points on 35.2 percent shooting. But that brings us to...

This Defense is on Fire

The Bearcats were able to pull themselves up and past the Knights because they once again crushed it on defense, allowing only 19 points in both the first and second halves while the Knights shot 30 percent. I tend to stay away from discussing too much defense, because it is a lazy narrative with UC, since it is always good at defense, but right now, UC is on another level. Ranked No. 2 in the country in adjusted defense, the Bearcats have allowed fewer than 60 points in every AAC game this season, which explains why they are 5-0 in league play and in first place. It is also why tweets like this one are disappointing to see.

You probably saw this if you’ve been circling #CincinnatiTwitter, complete with justified rebuttals. By my count, the Bearcats have held an opponent to 20 points or fewer in the first half six times this season. Obviously the subjectivity of the word “major” is what differentiates this. I won’t fault ESPN for not including Wyoming, Arkansas-Pine Bluff or even Richmond in that discussion, but this is a real shot across the bow of the AAC. Remember, UC held Memphis, SMU and UCF to 16, 20 and 19 points, respectively, in the opening half. But that’s fine. Using technicalities to make lists doesn’t change the fact that UC is defending as well as ever.

Prediction Time!

Let’s see. UC has won 35-straight games at home, plays defense better than anyone in the AAC and is facing an ECU team that is bad offensively and can only beat USF. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Bearcats have got this one.

Cincinnati 77 East Carolina 58