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Game Preview: Houston Cougars at No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats

How will UC handle the best team its played since December?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 02 Houston at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats are going to pull off another perfect month, they will have to vanquish the Houston Cougars at BB&T Arena tonight. The Bearcats (19-2, 8-0 American Athletic Conference) have won 12-straight games, including all seven games they have played in January. They went a percent 7-0 in November as well, while December featured their only two losses of the campaign. How difficult will it be to go 8-0 in January? We’re about to find out.

Who are the Houston Cougars?

They arethe best team the Bearcats have played since facing Florida on Dec. 9. That was also the last time the Bearcats lost a game. The Cougars are ranked No. 36 in the country by KenPom’s reckoning, putting them third in the AAC and above every other opponent UC has faced in January. With a 16-4 overall record and a 6-2 league mark, the Cougars are one of a handful of AAC teams which appear poised for the NCAA Tournament.

The team is fueled by Rob Gray, the league’s best scorer (18.7 PPG). The 6’2” guard has a PER of 25.7 this season as well as an offensive rating of 122.8, which is a career-high. Interestingly enough, Gray has actually experienced a dip in his usage percentage (29.1 from 32.4 last season) and he also has improved on defense, currently sporting a defensive rating below 100 for the first time in his career.

Some of the reason he has not had to handle the ball as much — although he stills handles it a lot — is because Corey Davis Jr. has had such a nice year. The JUCO transfer is averaging 12.5 points per game and shooting .480/.449/.750. Davis finished with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting in Houston’s last game against USF, which lifted Houston to a 63-40 win as Gray struggled to only two points on 1-of-7 shooting.

A 63-point outing was a strange sight for the Cougars, who are a top 100 group in terms of adjusted offense, ranking No. 61 specifically. Other than Wichita State, no team in the AAC is scoring more points per game than Houston (78.4).

Foul Play

It may seem odd to call a 14-point win on the road unimpressive, but that’s just what UC’s victory over the Memphis Tigers on Saturday was. The Bearcats committed 27 fouls and, while it could be argued that the referees were a bit too whistle-happy, that led to 29 free throw tries for the Tigers. Luckily, UC’s defense pummeled the Tigers, allowing just 31.1 percent shooting and 14 total field goals. The No. 2 defensive team in the country, UC is uniquely prepared to beat even the most bodacious offensive teams, but the degree of difficulty becomes exceedingly higher if the other team gets 30 free shots.

Clark Dominates and Trevor Moore Gets Clutch

We are running out of time to marvel at Gary Clark and his exceptional efforts for the Bearcats. He had another fine game against Memphis, finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds despite a less than stellar shooting night (5-of-14) and some injury issues. But there is no keeping Clark down. Literally.

But a less heralded hero from the win over Memphis was Trevor Moore. The freshman was pressed into service for a career-high 26 minutes as Jacob Evans dealt with foul trouble. In that time he only had eight points, but he made one of the most crucial buckets of the contest. Despite leading by as many as 19 points in the first half, the Bearcats found themselves clinging to a four-point lead with 12 minutes to play. But Moore drained a triple to spark a 15-2 run which effectively put the game on ice. If he can continue to make plays like that, he will have a long career at UC.

Prediction Time!

Even though they have won their last 37 games at home, this isn’t going to be a stroll through the forest for the Bearcats. Houston can score, especially when Gray isn’t freezing cold as he was against USF. It will be critical that UC’s backcourt players defend to the best of their abilities, since shutting down Gray and Davis is a tough task. Luckily, there’s not a single player on the roster with a defensive rating above 100, so the Bearcats will be able to throw all sorts of looks Houston’s way.

Even if they are able to befuddle the Cougars, this is still a game that will be played at a bit sharper pace and involve some more scoring. That means continued assertion from Clark, big shots from Evans, Cane Broome and Jarron Cumberland and a bounce back from Kyle Washington will be necessary.

Cincinnati 78 Houston 71