No matter what any head coach says, not every game is created equal. For the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team, the 2018-19 season is going to be chock full of extremely difficult, and therefore critical games. Much in the same way that NFL teams that come in first place one year must play tougher schedules the next, the Bearcats, who are the defending American Athletic Conference champs, are facing one of the most brutal schedules they’ve had in a while.
UC had only the 56th toughest schedule in the country last season, but this year that number should rocket up. It starts with some very powerful non-conference foes and continues with a much-improved group of teams inside of the AAC. Beginning with the first game of the season, here are the 10 most important games of the year for the Bearcats.
Nov. 7 vs. Ohio State
Ohio may be the Buckeye State, but basketball belonged to Cincinnati last year. However, even if the Bearcats won 31 games and were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes had a pretty strong season in their first under Chris Holtmann. The Buckeyes went 25-9 and earned a No. 5 seed in the big dance.
Ohio State is replacing their top player from a year ago in Keita Bates-Diop, who scored nearly 20 points per game and added 8.7 rebounds. Still, with a backcourt centered on senior guard Chris Jackson (12.6 PPG, 3.9 APG), this is still a team that will be tough to beat, even at Fifth Third Arena on opening night.
Dec. 1 at UNLV
If UNLV is still holding a grudge about losing out on Mick Cronin, then this will be an even more challenging game. The Rebels didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season, but they still won 20 games. Super freshman Brandon McCoy (16.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG) might be playing professionally now, but Shakur Juiston (14.6 PPG, 10.0 RPG) is also a double-double threat and the incredible offensive pace of the Rebels (83.4 PPG, 13th nationally last season) will put UC’s usually stout defense to the test.
Dec. 8 vs. Xavier
The Bearcats only lost five games last season. The loss to Nevada in the NCAA Tournament was the worst one, but falling to the Musketeers in the Crosstown Shootout was awful as well. Xavier is under new leadership now that Chris Mack took the head coaching job at Louisville. Travis Steele is Mack’s successor and as a long-time assistant in the program, should keep the ship steady. That means you can expect another epic showdown this year.
Dec. 19 vs. UCLA
This is the second part of a home-and-home between these two programs. UC took the first leg of the journey with a 77-63 triumph last season. Expectations are higher for this year’s version of the Bruins, but we saw how elevated expectations worked for their football team earlier this fall.
In all seriousness, UCLA is a team with returning talent and a new guys who should should be good right away. Whether its Kris Wilkes, who played well as a freshman, or touted recruit Moses Brown, this team has talent and youth on its side.
Jan. 19 at Wichita State
The Shockers made a strong introduction in its first year in the AAC, even if they ultimately missed out on the AAC title they were promised by preseason prognosticators. In all, they still finished with 25 wins and another NCAA Tournament berth. Gregg Marshall knows how to coach, no matter who is on the roster, so losing Landry Shamet to the NBA won’t slow down this train. UC just barely survived its visit to Wichita in the regular season finale last spring, so the Bearcats already know how difficult the road atmosphere will be in this one.
Feb. 7 at Memphis
By this time, we’ll know just how well Penny Hardaway has fit in as the head coach for the Tigers. The former NBA All Star was hired not to completely turn the program around, but breath some life into it. The Tigers won 21 games a year ago, but missed the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season. They had at least 18 wins in each of those years. Such mediocrity is not acceptable for a program that expects to challenge for AAC titles year in and year out. UC really roughed the Tigers up in both meetings last season. This will be their first chance at repeating such success against a new-look team.
Feb. 10 at Houston
We may have seen the birth of a brand new rivalry last season. UC and Houston played three times and each game was an absolute classic. The first featured an 18-point comeback in an 80-70 win for the Bearcats. The next was an endurance contest that Houston won at home. With the season series even at 1-1, it was only fitting that they played in the AAC title game, where UC held on for a one-point victory.
Houston, like UC, had to say goodbye to its best player this offseason, but even without Rob Gray, the Cougars are set up for success once more, with Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks leading the way.
Feb. 21 vs. UCF
If Wichita State was the champion that was promised last year, UCF is this year’s version. The Knights may have only won 19 games a year ago, but they played exceptional defense (ranked third nationally in points allowed per game) and really would have been better if not for a few injury issues. A full season from B.J. Taylor and rim protector Tacko Fall will go a long way toward making Johnny Dawkins’ third season at the helm a success. If the Bearcats are going to defend their league title, they have to take down the Knights at least once. This might be their best chance.
Feb. 24 at UConn
This is actually the second matchup for the Bearcats against the Huskies and their new head coach Dan Hurley. Like Hardaway and Memphis, this looks like a great matchup of coach and program and could mean that yet another serious challenger enters the fray. UC and UConn have played some classic (and brutal) defensive battles as conference rivals, and that shouldn’t change too much now that Hurley has taken over. As head coach of Rhode Island, he led the Rams to a top 100 scoring defensive mark last year. He also got them to the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year, so winning is an expectation.
March 7 at UCF
UC only scored 49 points when it visited UCF last season. That might have been enough to win, but that’s unlikely to be true this year. This game is the regular season finale for the Bearcats and, just like last year’s was an epic clash with Wichita State, this should be a contest that means much more than it appears as we sit here in October.