For years, a game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies was a must-watch affair. The two programs were the primary pillars on which American Athletic Conference basketball was built and their meetings in the first few years of the league’s existence are legendary. The spectacle of a clash between the two rivals has been lessened in recent years, but on Saturday, we got to jump in the time machine and return to the good old days.
Now, when I said those old UC/UConn games were must-watch, I didn’t mean they were fun to watch. Characterized by brutal defense, minimal scoring and deliberate pacing, matchups between the Bearcats and Huskies were more akin to boxing matces than basketball games. That made every possession a blood-pressure raising experience and forced each team to really consider how they were going to try to get points. Saturday’s game had that feel to it. Despite the work Dan Hurley has done in pushing the tempo at UConn, that didn’t matter against the Bearcats. According to Basketball-Reference, the games was played at a pace of 64.3, which is vastly below average. In fact, if you look at last year’s leaders in pace, you’ll find that a pace of 64.3 would rank 344th in the country.
In addition to the slow pace, both teams were not exactly lighting it up offensively. The game was tied at 62-62 at the end of regulation, which was quite low for two teams averaging more than 70 points per game. The Bearcats shot 42.3 percent and the Huskies were just behind them at 41.4 percent for the entire game. UC also had a slight edge in offensive rating (102.3) compared with UConn (100.0), although neither mark was anything more than average.
When the dust finally settled, the Bearcats’ slight offensive advantage won out, but only by two points. That also falls in line with the games of old. The first 10 times the Bearcats and Huskies met as AAC foes, the average margin of victory was only 5.2 points, with just a single game decided by double digits. The two teams split those 10 contests as well. Since then, however, the Bearcats have won six-straight with an average margin of victory of 13.2 points, including two victories of at least 20 points.
Even if this contest featured very little difference on the scoreboard, there were still things that separated the Bearcats for victory. Firstly, they outscored UConn both in the paint (32-26) and off of turnovers (17-8), which made up for some rather dismal three-point shooting (29.4 percent on 17 attempts) and a bitterly cold shooting slump down the stretch. You might forget that the Bearcats led by as many as 11 points in the second half, but after taking that 46-35 advantage with 12:44 to play, they made just 2-of-13 field goal tries in regulation.
It wasn’t just cold shooting from the field and three, however. The Bearcats also wasted far too many chances at the foul line. They took 22 more free throws than UConn (38-16), but only made 65.8 percent while the Huskies sank 81.3 percent. That still yielded a 25-13 scoring edge for the Bearcats, but this game would have been put away far sooner had they made just a few more, especially in the second half.
After winning two-straight contests in overtime and losing another one by only two points, the Bearcats are playing a dangerous game. The odds can’t always fall their way if a game is decided by a single basket. In the next few games, the Bearcats need to fix their issues and start winning more convincingly, otherwise that aesthetically pleasing 14-3 overall record will get ugly very quickly.
Best Individual Stat Line - Jarron Cumberland
It takes a team to win a game, but it also takes a team’s best player to drive them there. Cumberland certainly fits that role for the Bearcats and he did it yet again on Saturday. He was the only Bearcat to play more than 40 minutes and in that time he produced 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. His shot wasn’t always dropping (5-for-14), but he was the lone Bearcat to consistently make the Huskies pay at the foul line (11-for-12). Without him, UC would have lost this game and by a much larger margin than they won.