Oh, how the mighty have fallen. SMU easily defeated the UConn Huskies 80-73 in game one of the American Athletic Conference tournament, setting up their third matchup against Cincinnati this season, and a rematch of last year’s American Athletic Conference championship game.
SMU dominated Connecticut from the outset, going to halftime with a 42-23 lead while knocking down 7-of-13 three-pointers. The Huskies made a run on a fatigued SMU team late in the second half, but not enough to overcome the hole they dug for themselves in the first half. There’s a reason Kevin Ollie is on the hot seat, and today’s game didn’t do anything to quell those rumors.
As Bearcats’ fans, it’s easy to look at the names on the front of the jerseys and their performance today, and feel like victims of unfortunate seeding. How are we forced to play last year’s champion in our first game? However, the reality is that SMU is a shell of their former selves, and could provide the perfect tune-up before things get more interesting on Saturday and Sunday.
The Bearcats beat the Mustangs by an average of 22.5 points per game in their previous two games this year. After the first game, a 20-point home victory, coach Mick Cronin said, “I did not anticipate winning this game the way we won it. We’re used to everything’s life and death when we play each other.”
The second game was an even bigger blowout. All 11 Bearcats who entered the game played at least t10 minutes; that’s the type of thing that happens against cupcakes in November, not contenders in February. Kyle Washington led the scoring in that game with 17 points and eight rebounds, and the Bearcats won by 25 points despite hitting just 5-of-20 on three-point attempts.
SMU has been decimated by injuries this season. Their top scorer, Shake Milton, hasn’t played since January, and isn’t expected to play this weekend. Jarrey Foster and Everett Ray are out due to season-ending injuries, leaving the Mustangs with just six players in their rotation.
Freshman forward Ethan Chargois missed SMU’s second game against the Bearcats after suffering an injury in warm-ups. He’s played consistently for the Mustangs since then, but has been ineffective, scoring less than five points in six of his past eight games.
The Mustangs essentially play five guards at all times, so the Bearcats should have clear advantages in rebounding and interior scoring. Cincinnati outrebounded SMU in both of their previous games, and also outscored them in the paint both times.
Given all of SMU’s injury problems, the Bearcats will also have a big endurance advantage. The Mustangs were exhausted with five minutes to play in their game against UConn. After back-to-back terrible possessions, they transitioned into a sort of four-corners offense to protect their double-digit lead because they had obviously run out of gas.
That won’t work against the Bearcats who will be able to consistently cycle through fresh guards like Justin Jenifer, Cane Broome and Keith Williams to keep SMU running for the full forty minutes.
After last season, it’s hard to see SMU on the schedule and think it’s an easy win, but I can’t imagine a path to victory for the Mustangs.
SMU has been forced to live or die by three-pointers this season. The Bearcats have held them to just 11-of-39 on their three-point attempts in the previous two games. After playing a tournament game 24 hours prior, I imagine we’ll see more of the same in this matchup.
Gary Clark and/or Washington should have a big game, and I expect Cincinnati’s guards to have a high-scoring second half when SMU begins to show signs of fatigue late. Cincinnati may come out tight, as tends to be the case for Cincinnati-area teams in key moments, but once they settle they should easily dismantle this short-handed SMU team.
Final Score: Cincinnati 78, SMU 52