Tim Riggins says, “Texas forever.” The Cincinnati Bearcats do not say that, or maybe they do, I don’t know for sure. Either way, they will be in Texas for their next two games, beginning with a Sunday trip to Dallas to face the SMU Mustangs in American Athletic Conference competition. They will then visit Houston next Thursday, but let’s take this one step at a time.
Who are the SMU Mustangs?
Incredibly, the Mustangs did not just pack it up and leave the 2017-18 college basketball season after their last interaction with the Bearcats. On Jan. 7, UC crushed SMU 76-56 as part of a three-game losing streak for the defending conference champions. But then something magical happened — at least from a SMU perspective. In a road game against then No. 7 Wichita State, SMU escaped with a 73-70 road victory. Suddenly, the Mustangs had a signature win and a chance to elevate themselves back into contention.
That positive sentiment has changed a bit lately, as the Mustangs have dropped three of their last four games. Of course, those three losses all came on the road against UConn, Tulsa and Houston, and a couple without Shake Milton. The Mustangs are now 15-9 overall and 5-6 in conference play. They are still in the NCAA Tournament conversation, with ESPN’s Joe Lunardi having them pegged squarely on the bubble, but they have to really be careful during the last seven games of the regular season.
As mentioned above, in their last two games, the Mustangs were not playing with a full deck. Milton, who is most certainly their best player, sat out against Houston with a hand injury that also kept him out against Tulsa. Without their top scorer, SMU turned to Jahmal McMurray, who scored 17 points and drained four three-pointers against the Cougars. SMU also got 13 and 11 points, respectively, from reserves Akoy Agau and William Douglas. As a team scoring only 67.6 points per game, it is absolutely imperative that Milton gets healthy, especially if they have any shot at upsetting the defensively destructive Bearcats.
Reconstructing a Rematch
Milton was present for the first meeting between these teams this season. He scored 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting. That’s a pretty decent offensive outing, but was clearly not what the Mustangs needed, especially as Milton went 1-for-4 from three-point range and posted an offensive rating of 99. As a team, the Mustangs had a reading of 80 while shooting 37.5 percent from the field.
On the other side, Cincinnati got 18 points from both Jacob Evans and Gary Clark and 14 from Jarron Cumberland, while winning the rebounding battle 35-27. Kyle Washington and Clark each had eight boards to lead the way, while Evans, Cumberland and Justin Jenifer helped keep the offensive moving swiftly, combining for 12 assists. The team recorded an offensive rating of 108.6 and scored more points in the second half (42) than the first (34).
But the Mustangs are still not that far removed from being a real menace for the Bearcats. UC lost to the Mustangs 60-51 in Dallas last season and the two sides have split their last six meetings. That includes a 15-point victory for the Mustangs in the AAC title game last March. So don’t expect the Bearcats to show mercy.
Do You Even Defense?
It must be pretty discouraging to play the Bearcats. Not only are they a team that can absolutely crush you, they do it by sucking the offensive soul out of your team. Ranked second in the country in points allowed (56.1), the Bearcats are also second in the country in opponent field goal percentage (.363) and 16th in blocked shots. KenPom sure likes them, ranking them No. 4 in the country overall and No. 2 in adjusted defense.
In conference play, the Bearcats have only ratcheted that defense up, allowing only 51.5 points per game on 34.9 percent shooting — both the top marks in the conference. That defensive power was on full display in their last game against UCF. Powered by three blocks from Washington and aggressive coverage on the perimeter, the Bearcats held the Knights to 28.3 percent shooting (13-of-46) and a great, big goose egg from three-point range (0-of-14). That’s how you go about winning by 37 points (77-40) and its also why this happens —>
With last night's 37 point win over UCF, the #Bearcats now lead the nation in average margin of victory (20.4). Purdue ranks second at 19.8 pic.twitter.com/Vn4ABfOQ8A— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) February 7, 2018
You have to believe that Milton is going to do everything he can to play in this game. Not only is it one fraught with revenge possibilities, but its one that would really enhance SMU’s postseason resume. However, even when Milton was at full strength, the Mustangs didn’t even belong in the same gym as the Bearcats. Sure, playing at Moody Coliseum will help SMU, which is 13-1 at home this season, but as long as UC keeps up the defensive pressure and Washington keeps playing at the incredible pace he’s set for himself, the Bearcats should come home with a win, even if its closer than the last one.
Cincinnati 73 SMU 64