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Game Preview: No. 5 Cincinnati Bearcats at Houston Cougars

Let’s hope the Bearcats don’t have to overcome an 18-point deficit again.

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A little more than two weeks ago, the Houston Cougars through they had the Cincinnati Bearcats right where they wanted them. Leading by 18 in the first half, Houston was on the cusp of ending UC’s home-game winning streak. Then the Bearcats did their thing and came rushing back to win 80-70 at BB&T Arena. It was the most hype-inducing win of the season for the now No. 5 Bearcats but it made Feb. 15 a date to circle on the calendar.

That day is here and the Bearcats will once again tangle with the Cougars, this time on the road, in a game that begins a rather difficult stretch for the American Athletic Conference’s best team.

Who are the Houston Cougars?

I can answer that question, but first let me tell you about who the Houston Cougars were. Taking it back to Jan. 31, the Cougars were a team that couldn’t be happier. They were beating a nationally-ranked and hosting Cincinnati team by 18 points. They were already imagining a 17-4 overall record and a huge win on their resume, not to mention a boost toward a possible AAC title run.

Then it all went wrong. UC outscored the Cougars 65-37 during the rest of the game, Kyle Washington went off and the rest is history.

Since losing that game, the Cougars have recovered fairly nicely, winning three-straight games, including a 73-42 dismantling of Tulane this past Sunday. A key part of the current winning streak has been the play of sophomore guard Armoni Brooks. He has posted double-doubles in back-to-back games, tallying 34 points and 21 rebounds combined in wins over SMU and Tulane. Brooks is averaging 11.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting .416/.426/.917 over the last 14 games and giving Houston a real jolt off the bench.

Brooks’ play has made up for a recent cold stretch from Rob Gray, at least by his standards. After taking the L against Jacob Evans in the great man-bun debate, the former AAC scoring leader had only nine points on 4-of-15 shooting against UC. He had only two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the game before that. In his last five games he is averaging 10.8 points, while shooting .328/.211/.667 and that’s even with a 20-point showing against UCF. He has at least mitigated the issue with a 5.4 assists per game average in the same time, but Houston isn’t the same team when Gray isn’t hitting shots. Expect the Bearcats to once again focus on stopping him.

When Gray is firing on all cylinders, Houston is a great offensive team. When he isn’t, the Cougars are still just fine. They are second in the conference in scoring offense (77 PPG) and third in scoring margin (+12). They are also one of three teams in the league among KenPom’s top 30 and they can defend pretty well, ranking 22nd in adjusted defense. That’s why they are exactly even with Wichita State in terms of overall record (19-5) while tied for second in the league standings (9-3).

What Happened on Jan. 31?

The short answer is UC beat Houston. As for the long answer, we’ve already delved into it a little bit, but let’s go deeper. After all, I’m asking you to relive arguably the best win of the season, not a loss. This should be a fun exercise, not a chore.

The Bearcats were able to overcome the Cougars in that first meeting because of a number of things. Firstly, Washington played one of the best halves of basketball of his career. He scored 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting and blocked three shots overall, but he produced 14 of those points and two of those rejections in the final 20 minutes. That effort sparked what has been an incredible renaissance for the 6’9” forward. In the last four games he is averaging 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and shooting .667/.500/.714. His offense has been boosted by an unbelievable 72.4 mark in shooting percentage.

In addition to Washington’s work, the Bearcats got a big second-half from Jacob Evans (nine points, four assists, four rebounds) and Jarron Cumberland (11 points) all while Gary Clark dealt with major foul trouble. It also helped that UC got to the free-throw line much more often than the Cougars, outscoring them 18-4 at the foul line. However, that doesn’t mean UC shouldn’t get credit for improved defense and a more consistent offensive approach. The Bearcats shot 48.2 percent in the game overall, hitting 46.2 percent in the first half and 50 percent in the second. Meanwhile, the Cougars hit only 35.3 percent in the last half after a 50 percent showing in the opening frame.

Gut Check Time

The level of difficulty on Thursday is still high, even if UC dominated Houston for three quarters of the last meeting. It won’t be the last time the Bearcats get a real challenge in the regular season, as they still have to face Wichita State twice before conference tournament time. The first of those matchups is this Sunday at BB&T Arena. After that the Bearcats have to face UConn and Tulsa before visiting Tulane and the Shockers in the regular season finale.

Many pundits have brushed off the thought that the Bearcats are a top five team and Final Four contender because of their “weak schedule.” This is the time for UC to show that they are still just as dominant when better teams are on the other side of the score card.

Prediction Time!

Houston gave UC its best shot earlier, so we know that the Cougars can hang with the Bearcats. It remains to be seen if they can sustain such an effort for an entire 40 minutes. I think they can, but that doesn’t mean they will win. I expect this to be more of a back-and-forth game than the last one, with the Bearcats once again making sure Gray doesn’t beat them. Things could get dicey when Brooks is on the floor, but Trevor Moore and the rest of the reserves have shown poise when covering for the starters. In the end, I think the Bearcats will find a way to win this one, especially since they have been really rounding into form as March nears.

Cincinnati 69 Houston 65