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Jacob Evans is the Key to a Deep Run for the Cincinnati Bearcats

Evan has not been the same player the last few weeks. Even though the Bearcats were able to overcome that in the AAC Tourney, it won’t fly for very long in the Big Dance.

NCAA Basketball: American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of good basketball players on the Cincinnati Bearcats roster. Gary Clark is the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Kyle Washington can score inside, rebound, block shots and hit big threes. Cane Broome is an offensive firecracker off the bench. Jarron Cumberland dishes, defends and drops buckets. The list goes on from there.

But there is one player who will determine whether the Bearcats are a team that dances for a while or just nods its head a bit before ducking out in the NCAA Tournament. That player is Jacob Evans. According to the mothership, Evans is the 19th-best player in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, ahead of every other Bearcat including Clark. If you read our NCAA Tournament round table (coming tomorrow), you’ll know that we are all eager to see Evans get back to his elite level of play.

Evans is a player with legit NBA potential who does a whole lot things well, but his strongest attribute is his scoring. He has averaged 11.7 points per game in three years with the Bearcats, including 12.9 this season. However, as a junior, he has seen diminishing efficiency, even as the Bearcats have been better than ever. While scoring a fraction fewer points per game as compared to last year (13.5), Evans is also shooting .430/.374/.750. Those are all fine numbers for a wing player who makes a living with shots from all over the floor. However, when you compare his .473/.418/.732 line from a year ago, you’ll notice that he has taken a step back.

There are many reasons for this, none more prevalent right now than Evan’s health. While he deserves a great deal of praise for the dare-I-say gutsy performance he put forth against Wichita State in the regular season finale, there’s no doubt that he has been dealing with some after-affects from an injury suffered on March 1 against Tulane and a subsequent issue from the regular season finale.

The lingering injury likely had something to do with his play in the AAC Tournament. He may not admit it, but Evans certainly didn’t look like himself. Even as the Bearcats found a way to the win the title, Evans averaged only 7.0 points per game on .265/.071/.333 shooting. That middle number is particularly distressing, as despite launching nearly five triples per game, Evans only made a total of one. This is coming from a player who has made at least two threes in 18 games this year and is a 37.8 percent career three-point shooter.

On the bright side, Evans has still been defending well and contributing to wins in other ways, mainly on the boards and via distribution, as he averaged 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in the AAC Tourney. That’s because Evans is not just a shooter. But his scoring touch is what can elevate him from being a solid player to an exceptional one.

If the Bearcats are going to do more in March than just show up, they’ll need Evans to be the latter version. With him at less than 100 percent, they just barely managed to squeeze out the AAC title. Assuming they advance far in the Big Dance, it will be extremely difficult to pull off the same stunts against top-tier teams like Virginia, Tennessee and/or Michigan.

But first things first. Evans needs to bring his A game on Friday against Georgia State.