If it were just two years ago, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ game on Thursday night would be one of the biggest of the season. Unfortunately, the Bearcats have already played two of their most important games of the year and fell short, losing to Houston and Wichita State in back-to-back duels. Now, as they face the UConn Huskies, they are actually getting a reprieve as they try to get back on track at BB&T Arena.
Who are the UConn Huskies?
Right now, the Huskies are a pretty mediocre product. After finishing 16-17 overall and 9-9 in American Athletic Conference play last season, the Huskies are once again riding the train to .500 town. They are 13-15 overall and 6-8 in conference action. They took a step in the positive direction last time out, defeating East Carolina 84-80 on Sunday. Before that, they had lost five of their previous six games, including a 65-57 loss at home to the same Bearcats they’ll play tonight.
It must have been somewhat heartening for the the UConn faithful to see the offense click against the Pirates. The Huskies are scoring just 67.9 points per game (304th in the country), even if they aren’t at the absolute bottom of the country in adjusted offense (ranked 186th). By reaching 80 points on Sunday, they scored the most points they have since Jan. 3 when they lost 90-88 in double overtime to Tulsa.
Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier did the most damage offensively against ECU, helping the Huskies record an offensive rating of 125.4 and effective field goal percentage of 70 by scoring 46 combined points on 17-of-29 shooting. Adams also handed out six of the team’s 18 assists, as the offense flowed at a good pace and piled up 13 three-pointers.
Getting Adams going is always a major key for the Huskies, as he is averaging 17.8 points per game. Adams has the ball in his hands more than anyone else on the roster (28.4 usage percentage) and is second on the team in win shares (2.2). That means someone else has been arguably more valuable and that someone is Christian Vital. The 6’2” guard is only shooting .384/.320/.853 this season but he is averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game, while leading all starters in offensive rating (112.9) and the entire team in win shares (3.0).
Reliving the Last Meeting
When the Bearcats and Huskies clashed on Feb. 3, the Bearcats were ranked No. 8 in the country and coasted to a 65-57 victory. They led 32-21 at halftime and then just squeezed UConn defensively until it broke. By limiting the Huskies to an 87.7 offensive rating and 36.4 percent shooting, the Bearcats didn’t need to be at the top of their own offensive game. That didn’t stop Jacob Evans from scoring 19 points and Kyle Washington from tallying 13 points and 11 rebounds.
In the loss, Adams and Vital were pretty solid, with Adams scoring a game-high 20 points, albeit on 20 shots, while Vital tallied 18 points and nine rebounds while shooting an even 50 percent from the floor. However, the rest of the team combined for 19 points on 5-of-19 shooting (.263).
The Letdown Part II
The wolves are at the gates. Pundits who didn’t believe in the Bearcats are out for blood and dancing in the failure the Bearcats have suffered in the last two games. Most recently, the Bearcats lost a ranked matchup with Wichita State at home. They had won 39-straight home games before Sunday, but are now attempting to build the foundation for any type of winning streak.
Despite ranking No. 2 in the country in adjusted defense (and still No. 6 by KenPom overall), the Bearcats did not have an answer for the Shockers and their smooth offensive stylings. Wichita State shot 52.9 percent from the floor and tallied a 60.8 reading in effective field goal percentage to go with a 111.8 offensive rating. Landry Shamet really helped resurrect his AAC Player of the Year candidacy with 19 points and five assists.
For Gary Clark and Evans, their candidacies took major hits. Evans may have scored 16 points in each of the last two games but they have been a quiet 16 points, as he has started slow. Clark had 11 points and eight rebounds against Wichita State but he has also missed shots and been less involved than the Bearcats need.
Luckily, Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome can both still score (34 combined points against WSU). At this point, Broome needs to be getting the starters minutes at point guard because although Justin Jenifer doesn’t turn the ball over much, he just doesn’t add enough offensive punch to warrant a starting role.
While it isn’t great that UC lost to Houston and Wichita State, those are both very good teams that are going to be dangerous in March. UConn, as much as it used to be, is no longer a very good team. The Huskies were playing at home and got big games from Adams and Vital while the Bearcats were going through the motions the last time they played, and UC still won fairly easily. With the motivation of two losses and the sudden doubt being hurled their way, the Bearcats are going to go out and try to run UConn out of the country.
Cincinnati 75 UConn 57