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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bearcats passed their first true road test, but this is an entirely different matter.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Winning on the road is difficult. The Cincinnati Bearcats proved that and also proved they were up to the challenge against the UNLV Rebels just a couple weeks ago. That was their first true road game of the season. For their second, the Bearcats are turning the difficulty sliders up, as they will face the No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville on Saturday night.

This is the third-straight Saturday in which the Bearcats have a chance to make a statement with a victory. After disposing of UNLV on Dec. 1, the Bearcats were in action against their arch rivals in the Crosstown Shootout this past Saturday. In between, they dispatched Northern Kentucky, but it was the 62-47 destruction of the Xavier Musketeers that served as the highlight of a season that has already shown a ton of promise.

The Bearcats have won nine of their first 10 games, but against the Bulldogs, they are facing a ranked team for the first time all year, and on the road no less. You could argue that they played a ranked team when they met up with Ohio State on opening night, but the Buckeyes hadn’t broken into the top 25 at that point. The same can not be said of the Bulldogs.

Who are the Mississppi State Bulldogs?

Ben Howland’s reclamation project in Starkville is continuing its upward trend. After being hired as the head coach for the 2015-16 season, Howland has helped the Bullodgs improve their record in three-straight seasons. The high point was a 25-win campaign a year ago. They made the semifinals of the NIT and also had a .500 record in SEC play for the first time since 2012. Those results obviously pale in comparison to what the women’s team has done the last two years, but it was a promising finish all the same.

The Bulldogs have continued to carry the momentum of last year into this one. They have won eight of their first nine games and risen to the No. 18 ranking in the most recent AP poll. Those aren’t just empty victories propping up a team that doesn’t belong either. The Bulldogs are ranked 23rd in the country in adjusted efficiency margin, per KenPom, with balance across defense and offense. That puts them just six spots ahead of the Bearcats.

Howland runs an eight-man rotation, but relies heavily on his five primary starters, who all play at least 26 minutes per game. The lead bucket accumulator is Quinndary Weatherspoon, a 6’4” senior guard netting 16.8 points per game. Weatherspoon is one of three players on the team with a player efficiency rating of more than 20, and he is also a pretty strong defender (94.3 defensive rating).

Lamar Peters pairs with Weatherspoon to form a potent backcourt duo, Peters is a fine scorer in his own right (14.1 PPG) and he lets it fly from three-point range (7.7 attempts per game), making an impressive rate along the way (43.5 percent). As if that wasn’t enough, Peters is a standout passer, with an assist rate of 37.2 percent.

The backcourt is further fortified by Weatherspoon’s brother Nick Weatherspoon, who does a bit of everything, while the frontcourt has pillars to lean on in Aric Holman (10.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.1 BPG) and Abdul Ado (5.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.3 BPG). Off the bench, Tyson Carter adds a spark with his scoring ability (10.0 PPG).

Schedule Simplicity

Both the Bearcats and Bulldogs are two teams that have not faced the most difficult of roads this season. UC may have begun the year against a rising Ohio State team, but the rest of their schedule has been littered with home cupcakes and mid-level teams from power conferences. Their two best wins are against Ole Miss (59th in adjusted efficiency margin) and Xavier (60th), with the rest of their victories against teams outside the top 100.

What are you laughing at, Mississippi State? The Bulldogs schedule hasn’t been much better, ranking 226th in strength of schedule by KenPom’s calculations. They have had three wins against top 100 teams (Saint Mary’s, Dayton and Clemson), but none higher than the Tigers (41st in adjusted efficiency margin).

If you want to spin it, you could say that both teams have beaten the teams they were supposed to, since neither has a particularly ugly loss. UC lost to No. 15 Ohio State and the Bulldogs’ lone setback was against No. 20 Arizona State. With both teams considered top 30 programs so far, this is a perfect time to collect a signature win in time for the holidays.

Lessons From Last Year

The Bearcats and the Bulldogs are facing for the second-straight December, as they tangled at Fifth Third Arena right around this time a year ago. The Bearcats won that run-in 65-50. While both teams are not identical to a year ago, there are still things to be learned from that matchup.

First, the Bearcats succeeded in slowing down the Bulldogs’ best players, including Quinndary Weatherspoon, who was the leading scorer for the Bulldogs last season as well. Against the Bearcats, he scored 12 points on just 3-of-12 shooting. Peters struggled even more, turning the ball over six times and missing all 11 of his shots from the floor.

Secondly, UC put in extra effort on the offensive glass, earning itself a 13-6 scoring edge in second chance points. Gary Clark collected six of the team’s offensive boards, so someone like Nysier Brooks or Eliel Nsoseme will have to fill that role this year.

Lastly, the Bearcats took advantage at the free-throw line, making 14-of-16 attempts. They are connecting on a passable 70.4 percent this season, but have been less than consistent. They can’t afford to leave points on the board when they aren’t playing at home.

Prediction Time!

This game has something else in common with UC’s trip to Las Vegas; this will be another defensive struggle. The Bearcats might be a top 20 team defensively speaking, but the Bulldogs are not far behind, ranking 25th in adjusted defense. In contrast to UNLV, the Bulldogs can back that defense up with strong offense, primarily powered by Quinberry Weatherspoon and Peters.

If the Bearcats are going to pull off the upset this Saturday, then they need to be firing on all cylinders, which means they’ll need players beyond Jarron Cumberland, Keith Williams and Trevon Scott to score efficiently. That might be too much to ask this time, although the shoe would be on the other foot if this game was at Fifth Third Arena. Mississppi State 68 Cincinnati 65