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Game Preview: No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats at UConn Huskies

Does this once great rivalry still have a spark?

UConn Huskies Vs Cincinnati Bearcats Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Even if the rivalry isn’t as hot as it was a few years ago, there’s still some magic to be had when the Cincinnati Bearcats face the UConn Huskies. The two teams that used to be the class of the American Athletic Conference (plus SMU) will play a game of basketball on Saturday at Gampel Pavilion.

Who are the UConn Huskies?

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that the Huskies were perennially excellent, but it actually has been. The program has been going in reverse since its national title win in 2014. A lot of the blame is being put on Kevin Ollie and, whether that’s fair or foul, the Huskies went just 16-17 last season and are 11-11 overall right now.

That record has gotten much worse recently, with the Huskies losing four of their last five games to fall into a portion of the conference usually reserved for teams like Tulane. The Huskies did beat the Green Wave on Jan. 13, but that was before it got brutalized by Memphis (73-49), No. 1 Villanova (81-61), Temple (85-57) and, most recently, dropped a 70-61 decision to UCF. In between there was a 63-52 win over SMU, but the jury is still out on whether that qualifies as impressive.

In the loss to UCF, the Huskies once again failed to be much of a threat offensively. With a 95.3 offensive rating, they provided little-to-no scoring punch. Terry Larrier did score 15 points in the loss, but he needed 16 shots to get there. Jalen Adams, who is the team’s top shooter (17.5 PPG) and a solid distributor (4.1 APG), only had nine points on 3-of-9 shooting. Christian Vital is the third head of UConn’s triple-threat backcourt, averaging 14 points per game but shooting just 36.6 percent from the field.

Even with such a trio of guards, UConn’s offense does not share the ball all that well, ranking 347th in the country in assists (217). That means easy looks have been hard to come by, with UConn making slightly more than 40 percent of its field goal tries. The Huskies have been marginally better in conference play (.415), but they haven’t done much better in distribution while being clowned on the glass. Ranking 10th among AAC in rebounds in league games, the Huskies are one of five teams in the conference with a negative rebounding margin this year.

So yeah, this isn’t your father’s UConn. Heck, it’s not even your older brother’s.

Kyle Washington can be really good. People forget that.

When Cincinnati was mounting its comeback on Wednesday against Houston, Kyle Washington was leading the charge. He wound up with 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting and also contributed five rebounds and three blocks. Due to the streaky nature of his play, Washington sometimes gets forgotten behind Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Jarron Cumberland. But when he’s on, Washington is definitely one of the stars of this team. He illustrated that on Wednesday and showed that UC is an entirely different (and more dominant) team when he is playing at full capacity.

Washington’s skill set is as unique as his hook shot. He has a nice arsenal of moves in the paint, but is confident enough to let it fly from long range. While he is averaging only 11.1 points per game and ranks eighth on the team in offensive rating (114.7), the fact that he has such varied offensive skills is a real bonus for the Bearcats, especially when he is at the height of his powers.

But that doesn’t even credit him for being an effective defender. He leads the team in block percentage (6.5) among players who have been in all 22 games and Clark, Evans and Cumberland are the only players on the team with more defensive win shares. For a big man, his rebounding is still lacking consistency, but whenever they get a full game of peak Washington, the Bearcats are impossible to beat. Just ask Houston.

KenPom Comparison

The analytics don’t love UConn, as you might imagine. The Huskies are ranked No. 217 in the country in adjusted offense and that’s even with them being one of the more fortunate teams in the land, ranking 17th in luck rating. In all fairness, they have traveled a tougher road than the Bearcats, with UConn 42nd in strength of schedule and UC just 184th. However, that doesn’t mean that UC’s No. 2 adjusted defense and No. 5 overall rating are an illusion.

Prediction Time!

This could be a frightening game for UConn if the Bearcats push their obvious frontcourt advantage. The Huskies are quite green down low and will have trouble keeping Clark and Washington in check. Assuming UC once again dominates the boards and keeps UConn out of the lane, then an already bad offensive team will get crumpled by the Bearcat D.

Cincinnati 70 UConn 54