Beating the No. 19 Cincinnati Bearcats at home is about as impossible a task as there is in college basketball right now. The Bearcats have won 34-straight at home, whether that means Fifth Third or BB&T Arena. They will put that national-leading streak on the line on Sunday against the SMU Mustangs in an American Athletic Conference battle with more at stake than most in early January.
Who are the SMU Mustangs?
For starters, they are the defending AAC champions. The last time the Bearcats faced them was disappointing to say the least, as UC was the team the Mustangs beat in the AAC title game. After going 17-1 in conference play a year ago, the Mustangs are a solid bunch once again, ranking among the top 30 teams in the country according to KenPom’s metrics.
However, there is weakness in this year’s rendition. The Mustangs have lost both of their true away games and are 2-1 against the conference after falling on the road to a suddenly competent Tulane team on Thursday. They really let that game slip away, as they led by as many as 12 points but let up a 59.3 percent shooting rate to the Green Wave in the final 20 minutes.
Shake Milton, SMU’s assumed all-conference player and potential all-league MVP, netted 24 points in the losing effort. The 6’5” guard is not to be trifled with as he can score on his own (17.5 PPG) and also does a great job of getting his teammates involved (4.6 APG). He is able to do that because the Mustangs are stocked with plenty of scorers, with six players averaging at least 10 points per game. Jarrey Foster (13.9 PPG) is the next best option and also a competent distributor (3.0 APG). Despite scoring a respectable but far from impressive 75.2 points per game, the Mustangs are a well-oiled offensive machine, ranking 11th in the country in assists.
They also play defense quite well. Opponents have scored only 59.8 points per game against them, which is good for the fifth-best mark in the nation.
Kyle Washington Steps Up Against Temple
While the Mustangs were being upset by Tulane on Thursday, UC was fending off an upset attempt from its own foe. As Temple attempted to surprise the Bearcats at home, Kyle Washington was a steady scoring force in a game where points were scarce. He netted 18 points, his most in a single game since Dec. 16, and did so on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting. No three points were bigger than these.
LET'S GOOOOOOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/kdbKOxeQ0u— Award-Nominated OhVarsity! (@OhVarsity) January 5, 2018
Jacob Evans was the eventual hero, but Washington’s shot was nearly as important.
Uncertainty About Broome
Cane Broome missed the Temple game with a reported sprained ankle and its still not clear if he will be able to play in this one. Broome has been an electric bench scorer this season and a nice compliment to usual starter Justin Jenifer at point guard. Without him, the Bearcats lose a dynamic part of their game and a shooter who can heat up and win games for them.
This is the first real test for the Bearcats since they matched up with UCLA midway through last month. It’s one they will be eager to pass since SMU knocked them out of the AAC title game rather convincingly last spring. Still, the two teams split their regular season meetings during the last regular season, and SMU appears to be a bit less of a force than it was last year. After all, at 12-4, they have already nearly matched their loss total from all of last season.
However, this is not a team to underestimate. Milton can score like crazy and he has shooters around him. It will be important that Evans (who leads the team in scoring) and Gary Clark (12.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG) play top notch ball, but it will be equally critical to get good games out of Washington and some of the reserves, who combined for only four points off the bench against Temple. Lastly, Jarron Cumberland can’t go 0-for 6 from the floor again, especially if Broome is out.
What this all means is Sunday will be a tough day, but a day that the Bearcats are more than capable of winning.
Cincinnati 67 SMU 63