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American Athletic Conference Championship Preview: Houston Cougars vs Cincinnati Bearcats

Bearcats look for first American Athletic Conference tournament championship

AAC Basketball Tournament - Semifinals Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The top-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats will take on the third-seeded Houston Cougars for the American Athletic Conference tournament championship on Sunday in Orlando, FL.

Rob Gray scored 33 points in Houston’s upset victory over Wichita State on Saturday to give the Cougars their fifth straight win, and tenth win in their last eleven games. Houston is scorching hot at exactly the right time.

Cincinnati limps into the championship game, barely beating a short-handed SMU team on Friday, and then needing a massive second-half comeback to defeat an inferior Memphis team on Saturday.

This matchup isn’t the one most college basketball fans envisioned when the season started. Despite beating both Cincinnati and Wichita State during the regular season, the Cougars have routinely been overlooked as serious competitors.

Yet, here they are, on the doorstep of their first American Athletic Conference championship.

Regular Season

The Bearcats and Cougars split their regular season matchups with each team winning on their respective home courts.

Cincinnati’s bench struggled in both contests, scoring just two points in their 67-62 loss. Houston dominated the glass in that one, outrebounding the Bearcats 36-27.

Rob Gray has struggled to score against the Bearcats stifling defense, averaging just 11.0 points per game. The senior is one of the most prolific scorers in the nation, averaging 18.1 points and 4.7 assists per game on the season.

Unranked at the time, the Cougars snapped the then #5 Bearcats 16-game winning streak with their victory on February 15th.

Matchups

Few teams matchup as evenly with the Bearcats as Houston does. Devin Davis is a formidable interior presence who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Cougars win over Cincinnati.

Gray can go toe-to-toe with any player in the country, and with Jacob Evans in a scoring slump, the Bearcats will need to see another impressive defensive effort to help blunt his impact.

On paper, the major advantage for Cincinnati should be depth. Houston’s talent is top heavy with a solid starting five, and relatively weak bench. Armoni Brooks is capable of scoring in bunches off the bench, but they lack much talent past him.

Prediction

Cincinnati isn’t likely to have any room for error in this one. They won’t be able to wait to show up offensively until halftime again. The Bearcats need Kyle Washington to stay out of early foul trouble, and need to see Jacob Evans score the ball early and often.

If they can do those things they’ll be competitive throughout, but if they look anything like they did in the first game and a half of this tournament then this game will play out similar to last season’s AAC championship game when SMU ran away with an easy victory.

Rob Gray is going to come out hot and put this Houston team on his back from the start. How the officials choose to call fouls will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game. If Gray gets calls whenever he drives to the lane, and fouls start to pile up on Washington and Clark then Cincinnati could be in trouble.

I’m expecting the real Cincinnati team to show up on Sunday. There’s a reason this team has won 29 of 33 games this season, and that’s because they are an experienced, defensive powerhouse with legit offensive weapons. I’ll be shocked if they leave Orlando without displaying that offensive prowess. Look for Evans to finally leave his mark on this tournament and the Bearcats to escape with a narrow victory.

Final Score: Cincinnati 81, Houston 77