After a few days of soul searching, the Cincinnati Bearcats will take their second shot at winning an American Athletic Conference matchup on the road when they face off with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at the Reynolds Center on Thursday night.
There is absolutely no need to panic if you’re the Bearcats, even after they lost a puzzling game to the East Carolina Pirates last Saturday. The road loss certainly provided a stark reminder of things the Bearcats need to address, namely their three-point shooting and the play of Cane Broome, but at 12-3 and with a top 30 adjusted efficiency margin, they are far from spiraling into oblivion. Remember, just one week ago they were coming off an absolutely dominant win against the Tulane Green Wave. Such is the fickle beast known as conference play.
Who are the Tulsa Golden Hurricane?
It’s tough to tell just how good the Golden Hurricane are. They have a record that looks great (11-4) and even if they split their first two league tests, the loss in that equation was to first place Houston. Add in a pair of top 100 wins against Kansas State and Oklahoma State and this is a team that is at least approaching the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The underlying metrics do not support their case, however. According to KenPom, Tulsa is 149th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, as they score 104.1 points per 100 possessions. They are also outside the top 100 on defense as they allow a hair more than one point per possession.
In their most recent contest, they settled a bet about which upstart AAC team is more for real, topping the surprising 11-win USF Bulls thanks to a last-second three-pointer from Curran Scott. While the win is nice, Tulsa did lead by as many as 11 points in the second half. They’re just lucky they didn’t completely collapse and still found a way to win.
Senior DaQuan Jeffries and junior Martins Igbanu are the top offensive options on the roster. Jefferies is a 6’5” swing man who can shoot from all over and also ticks a number of boxes on the stat sheet. He is averaging 13.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks per game with a true shooting rate of 64.6 percent. Igabnu, who stands at 6’8”, is netting 13.3 points per game on 58.6 percent from the floor while also leading the team in rebounds (6.0 per game). Senior point guard Sterling Taplin is capable of lighting up the scoreboard, as he did with 15 points against USF, but he has shot poorly this season. Luckily he still orchestrates the offense well with his play-making, averaging 4.9 assists per game.
How Do You Defend the Free-Throw Line?
That’s a question the Bearcats will have to answer because the Golden Hurricane is a team that does a large chunk of its scoring at the charity stripe. Tulsa scores 24.4 percent of its points from free throws, which ranks 12th in the country, and they are fourth in free throws attempted per field goals attempted (0.475), according to Team Rankings.
Obviously what this actually means is that Tulsa has a lot of guys comfortable with putting the ball on the deck, absorbidng contact and getting shots off close to the rim. Igbanu is the leader in that regard (6.1 foul shots per game), which makes sense since he does most of his work in the painted area. However, Taplin shows no fear when driving into the lane, averaging 4.4 attempts per game and coming off a 10-for-10 effort at the line against USF.
So what can Cincinnati do? Play careful defense on the interior and limit easy looks close to the basket. That provides a bit of good news/bad news situation. On the one hand, the Bearcats’ interior defense is great. They are sixth in the nation in block percentage (9.9 percent) and 13th in two-point field goal defense (43.4 percent). On the other hand, they are 128th in the coluntry in personal fouls per possession. As long as top rim protectors like Nysier Brooks, Eliel Nsoseme and Trevon Scott remain disciplined and swat shots and not hack limbs, the Bearcats should be able to stifle Tulsa’s offense. That’s just a difficult proposition against such an aggressive opponent.
The Bearcats haven’t lost back-to-back games since December of 2017. Tulsa is a better team than the East Carolina squad they just lost to, however, so they are in real danger of fall short once again, especially on the road.
With that written, the Bearcats match up fairly well with Tulsa and if they can keep the Golden Hurricane scorers from getting to the rim and the foul line, they have the superior offensive versatility to save the day. Cincinnati 72 Tulsa 68