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Cincinnati and the Ranked Opponent Paradox

The Bearcats are having trouble winning the “big game.” Let’s address the reasons why.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Just last week the Cincinnati Bearcats were getting some support as a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Visions of Final Four runs danced in our heads. It was a magical time.

Now, after an incredibly rough week, some of the scuttlebutt around the internet water cooler is that the Bearcats are overrated and can’t beat “good teams.” It’s tough to argue right now after they fell short against Houston and Wichita State, the latter game coming at home. But just how accurate is it that UC can’t beat the best teams?

Since leaving the Big East, the Bearcats have not played a multitude of ranked opponents each year. In fact, not including NCAA Tournament contests, they have faced 24 ranked opponents since joining the American Athletic Conference. OK, technically its 21, but I included both Houston games from this year and SMU from last year. The Mustangs were ranked in the second two matchups of the season, but not the initial one.

In those 24 games, the Bearcats have gone 11-13. However, more recently, they have had more trouble, going 5-11 against ranked foes since the 2015-16 season started. That includes a disastrous 1-4 mark this year, and I’m reaching a bit on that since that one win was against Houston before it was ranked.

While even 24 games isn’t exactly the largest sample size you could ask for, the fact is, the Bearcats are coming up short in big games. What are some of the through lines in these contests, specifically the ones the Bearcats have lost? For this exercise, we’re going to examine the Bearcats’ losses against ranked foes in the last two seasons.

One of the most striking and disappointing trends in these games is how poorly Jacob Evans and Gary Clark have played. The two players who lead this year’s squad in win shares, Evans and Clark are obviously the best the Bearcats have to offer, but that hasn’t always been the case when the lights shine brightest.

For Evans specifically, the problem has not been is point production or his overall shooting, its been his long-range work. In those Bearcats losses to ranked opponents during the last two years, Evans has shot 43.6 percent from the floor and averaged 16.5 points per game. That sounds pretty good, but when you look at his 34.8 percent success rate from beyond the arc, it is a less efficient offering. That has been especially true this year, as he has made just two of his last 12 three-point attempts against ranked opponents.

Clark has suffered from a similar lack of efficiency. His counting numbers look just fine in these losses (10.1 PPG, 9.3 RPG), especially considering the rebounding work, but he has made only 39.7 percent of his field goal tries. That is a whopping drop from his career field goal percentage (.520) and is no doubt a drain on the offense.

The Bearcats’ vaunted defense has also taken its lumps in some of these games, especially against talented offensive squads like Wichita State and Xavier. In the loss to the Shockers (ranked No. 8 in adjusted offense), the Bearcats allowed an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 and 52.9 percent shooting overall. The Musketeers (ranked No. 7 in adjusted offense) shot 47.4 percent, including a 10-of-21 showing from three-point range. In their eight losses against ranked opponents over the last two seasons, only one squad has not recorded an effective field goal percentage at or above .500 (Florida).

A third cause for these losses can be found on the glass. With guys like Clark, Kyle Washington, Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott, the Bearcats have a size advantage and a plethora of big men to play. However, that size has not paid off in these more critical games. Clark had eight rebounds against Wichita State, but Washington, Brooks and Scott combined for two boards (both from Washington) in 29 minutes.

That effort was somehow better than when the Bearcats were defeated 35-27 on the boards by Houston and 37-26 by Xavier. Of course, UC has still lost games when it had more rebounds than its opponent, but clearly it is an issue that needs to be addressed and, quite frankly, shouldn’t be cropping up at all.

These are just a few of the reasons the Bearcats are having so much trouble getting those statement victories. If they are going to be taken more seriously by those outside of the American Athletic Conference bubble, they have to figure out how to correct these problems. They will have a chance to work on that over the next three games before they get another shot at Wichita State and a win against a ranked opponent on March 4. After that we can start talking about how far they will go in March.