Since the schedule for the 2017-18 season was released, it seemed preordained that March 4 would be the biggest date of the season for the Cincinnati Bearcats. With American Athletic Conference title expectations on their shoulders, the Bearcats were always going to have to vanquish the Wichita State Shockers on that day, the last of the regular season.
Well that day is nearly here, and the No. 10 Bearcats and No. 11 Shockers have lived up to their respective sides of the bargains, meaning Sunday’s contest can decide the outright winner of the AAC crown. Sure, UC already clinched at least a share of the title with its win on Thursday, but this isn’t a kindergarten class. Sharing isn’t encouraged.
Who are the Wichita State Shockers?
As if you need a reminder. Wichita State is one only four teams to beat the Bearcats this season. The Shockers accomplished that feat roughly two weeks ago, knocking off the then No. 5 Bearcats 76-72 at BB&T Arena. Now the Bearcats will be out for revenge.
But the Shockers have plenty of motivation to win this game as well. At 24-5 overall and 14-3 in league play, they need to win to earn a share of the AAC title and to improve their own seeding in the NCAA Tournament. They have been doing plenty of good work to set up this epic regular season finale, winning their last seven games, including a 75-71 escape act in overtime against UCF on Thursday.
Shaquille Morris netted 19 points to go with nine rebounds to lead the way, as the Shockers dominated the interior to outlast the Knights. They had a 39-29 edge on the boards and an 20 percent advantage in offensive rebounding percentage. Landry Shamet added 14 points and six assists, but the Shockers were not at their offensive best, shooting a respectable 47 percent from the floor, but just 28.6 percent from three-point range. Considering they are the No. 5 team in the country in adjusted offense, that was a cold night indeed.
Back to Shamet. We all remember him, the NBA draft prospect and AAC Player of the Year contender who roasted the Bearcats earlier this season. The 6’4” guard scored 19 points to go with five assists as the Shockers ripped through UC’s normally potent defensive attack, connecting on 52.9 percent of their field goal tries. The biggest challenge on Sunday will be stopping the Shockers from getting back into such an offensive rhythm. A tall task to be sure.
How UC Can Win This One
Normally this section would be reserved for a short rundown of the Bearcats’ last game, but considering they breezed past Tulane, we can skip that and focus on this game, because at noon on Sunday the entire college basketball world should be watching.
Obviously playing better defense is the easiest solution. As noted earlier, Wichita State cut through the UC defense with ease, but the Bearcats are still ranked No. 2 in the country in adjusted defense. They need to limit offensive rebounds and not allow easy buckets, as the Shockers scored 22 points off of turnovers earlier this season. In addition, the guys on the inside need to make sure its a difficult proposition to bring it in the paint. They have the skills to do so, as they rank 10th in the country in blocked shots and second in opponent two-point field goal percentage.
Along with a team-wide improvement on defense, the Bearcats will need their star players to start quickly and keep it up. Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington all had less than stellar showings in the first meeting. Evans had a pretty cold start and turned the ball over too much. Clark also struggled to find efficient offense and Washington produced six points in only 17 minutes. Jarron Cumberland (18 points) and Cane Broome (16 points) both went in, and that will be necessary again, but the Bearcats can’t just rely on their depth on Sunday. Their best players have to be at their, well, best.
This game is a gamblers’ nightmare, since the margin of difference between these programs is razor thin.
#UC given 51.1% chance to beat Wichita State (and win AAC men's hoop title outright) Sunday, per ESPN BPI.— Tom Groeschen (@TomGroeschen) March 3, 2018
Even if people want to pretend that UC can’t beat good teams, its clear that the Bearcats can hang with the Shockers. After all, they played a brutally bad defensive game last time they played them and still lost by only four points. If they can bring increased energy on the defensive end, get Evans and Clark going early and help Broome keep cooking, they can reverse the previous outcome and leave Wichita with the AAC crown all to themselves.
Cincinnati 76 Wichita State 73