The first round of the NCAA tournament is in the books, and as always chaos reigned supreme, but luckily for the No. 2 seed Cincinnati Bearcats and No. 7 seed Nevada Wolf Pack, that chaos was primarily focused in their region.
Cincinnati and Nevada will face each other in a second-round matchup on Sunday with hopes of advancing in a severely weakened bracket. It’s entirely possible that neither team will have to face a team from a Power Six conference from now until the Final Four. It’s hard to imagine a better scenario for either team.
Both teams had battles on their hands in the first round. Cincinnati found itself down big early against 15-seed Georgia State before Jarron Cumberland put the entire team on his back, scoring a career-high 27 points in the Bearcats’ 68-53 victory.
Nevada’s victory was much more dramatic. The Wolf Pack trailed Texas 40-26 in the second half before mounting a vicious rally to tie the game and send it to overtime on Jordan Caroline free throws with just three seconds remaining. Nevada outscored the Longhorns 19-15 in overtime to secure the victory and advance to face Cincinnati on Sunday.
The 19-point overtime period is a testament to how lethal the Wolf Pack offense can be. Nevada rallied from a 14-point deficit, playing with just six players, and somehow still had the talent and energy to score 19 points in five minutes of overtime.
KenPom ranks Nevada as the eighth best offensive team in the country, and 24th best team overall. The Bearcats are just 3-4 this season when they play teams in KenPom’s Top 25. They’re 28-0 against everyone else.
The Wolf Pack enter the game with a 28-7 overall record. They’ve been led by a pair of 6-7 wings in Caroline and Caleb Martin who present extremely difficult matchups for opposing defenses.
Caroline enters the game averaging 17.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, while Martin leads the team with 19.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Martin also shoots nearly seven three-pointers per game at a 40.4 percent clip. Somehow, Martin isn’t even the most deadly shooter on the team. That honor belongs to Kendall Stephens, the senior transfer from Purdue who takes almost eight three-pointers per game, knocking them down at a 44.4% rate.
As was the case with Georgia State in the first round, the Wolf Pack haven’t faced a defense as intense and skilled as Cincinnati’s. Their victory over Texas on Friday represents their best win of the year, although they do have impressive wins over Davidson and Rhode Island on their resume.
Nevada also lacks depth. They played just six players in a 45-minute game against Texas. Cincinnati goes 10 deep, and has quality off the bench at every position.
As good as they are offensively, the Wolf Pack are relatively average defensively. They rank just 107th in the country in KenPom’s defense rating, and are especially bad at defending the paint.
As has been the case most of the season, the Bearcats should have a real advantage on the interior with Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. The Bearcats beat Georgia State thanks to an incredible 20-6 advantage on offensive rebounds. Nevada struggles at preventing offensive rebounds, and were outrebounded by Texas on Friday.
Who Will Step up This Time?
With so much talent, it seems a different player finds a way to step up every game for the Bearcats. It was Gary Clark in the opening rounds of the American Athletic Conference tournament, Kyle Washington in the championship game and Jarron Cumberland against Georgia State.
Bearcats fans hope it will be Jacob Evans who steps up this time. He was saddled with two quick fouls early on against the Panthers, and sat out the majority of the first half. Evans had a terrible conference tournament, but showed improvement in the second half against the Panthers. Could that be a sign that he’s due for a big game?
Nevada is among the most talented teams the Bearcats have faced all season. Very little separates them from Houston and Wichita State, two teams Cincinnati struggled against this year. Sunday’s game will be a fight, and both teams have the talent to change the complexion of the game if they’re hitting shots from the perimeter.
I think Nevada’s depth will ultimately be their undoing. They just played 45 minutes on Friday, and now have to face Cincinnati’s in-your-face, relentless defense for 40 minutes on Sunday. I expect the Bearcats to trail early, but grind out a close win similar to their AAC championship game on Sunday. I’m also expecting big days from Clark and Washington if they’re able to stay out of foul trouble. The length and size of Nevada could be an issue, but depth should ultimately advance the Bearcats to their first Sweet Sixteen since the 2011-12 season.
Final Score: Cincinnati 71, Nevada, 62