The Cincinnati Bearcats are in a classic good news/bad news situation as they enter a Tuesday night matchup with the USF Bulls at Fifth Third Arena. On the one hand, they have quickly recovered from a difficult road loss to East Carolina by winning back-to-back games. On the other hand, they needed every ounce of skill and luck they could muster to squeeze out those wins, with overtime required both times.
With those wins in hand, the Bearcats are 14-3 overall and 3-1 in American Athletic Conference play as they prepare for the Bulls. While recent less than convincing victories have hurt them to an extent, they are still the favorites in the conference, at least by KenPom’s estimation. They rank 31st in the country in adjusted efficiency margin (+17.17), which puts them just two spots higher than first place Houston (+16.59) and seven above preseason favorite UCF (+15.01). If the Bearcats aren’t careful, all that statistical backing won’t mean anything, which brings us to tonight’s game.
Who are the USF Bulls?
These aren’t the same Bulls to whom we’ve become accustomed, at least on paper. With a 12-4 overall record, they have as many wins as North Carolina, Auburn and Kentucky, among others. They have also surpassed their win total from a year ago and put up the most wins they’ve had in a season since 2014.
Here is where the other shoe comes crashing down. USF is just 2-2 since conference play began and they did not play a single team inside KenPom’s top 100 during the non-league portion of the schedule. They did assuage some of the doubts by topping UConn in their league opener, while putting up exceptional fights on the road against Tulsa and Temple, but this team still needs to prove itself a bit more.
Even if USF’s improvement has been a bit misleading, head coach Brian Gregory still deserves credit for creating a new brand of basketball in Tampa. In their second season with Gregory at the helm, the Bulls are scoring 11.5 more points per game than last year, while allowing 5.1 less. The metrics stand by those improvements, especially on defense, as the Bulls are ranked 50th in the nation in adjusted defense this year (95.8). USF is built on creating pressure, especially from guards David Collins and Laquincy Rideau, who are averaging 2.7 and 3.4 steals per game, respectively. Collins is also the top scorer (14.6 PPG), but isn’t an efficient shooter, while Rideau can distribute (5.8 assists per game) and ight it up (13.9 points per game), despite shooting just 50 percent from the foul line.
Even with improved scoring volume, efficiency is a team-wide problem. The Bulls are shooting just 44.3 percent from the floor, and they don’t have the shooters to punish the Bearcats from long range (33.1 percent from three) or at the free-throw line (60.9 percent). Their secret weapon, however, has been offensive rebounding. They are 12th in the country in offensive rebound rate (35.6 percent), according to Team Rankings, which makes for an interesting matchup with the Bearcats, who are ranked 23rd.
Alexis Yetna is the key to USF’s rebounding strength. The 6’8” redshirt freshman from France leads the AAC in total (10.8 per game) and offensive (3.9 per game) rebounds. He can also score (12.8 points on 55.2 percent shooting), while making the occasional shot from beyond the arc, as he is hitting 47.8 percent on 1.4 attempted threes per game.
First Conference Impressions
Although four games is far from enough to really judge a team, the Bearcats have finished just that many conference matchups and some trends have developed.
On a team level, the Bearcats are still keeping the paint clean and defending well close to the basket. They rank fourth in the league in two-point field goal percentage during conference play (53.2 percent) and no team has as many blocks (22). Ball control has also been solid for the team which has turned the ball over the fewest times in league action (42). Unfortunately, there have been some negative developments as well, namely dismal three-point defense and some uncharacteristic weakness on the glass. League foes have shot 45.7 percent from three against the Bearcats, who are also ranked just ninth in the conference in rebounds (132) in the last four games.
When looking at each player’s individual accomplishments, Jarron Cumberland’s numbers stand out the most. He was already playing at an all-conference rate before the new year began, but in four league games he is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. Cane Broome has also come alive of late, shooting 53.8 percent from the field and averaging 10.3 points over the last four games. He is still struggling to find his three-point shot, but his efficiency everywhere else has really been boosted.
While some have risen to the occasion, others have stumbled. Trevon Scott was held to two points on 1-of-7 shooting on Saturday against UConn. He is averaging 8.3 points on 41.2 percent shooting against AAC opponents, which is a sizable drop from his overall body of work (9.4 per game, 48.1 percent shooting). Luckily, he is still defending at a high level and producing on the boards at a similar rate to the rest of the campaign.
This game would normally be written down as a win in permanent marker for the Bearcats. That may not be the case this year. The Bulls have a legitimate core with Yetna, Collins and Rideau and their strengths could take some of UC’s usual advantages away. On the bright side, the Bulls aren’t a lights out three-point team, which has been ailing the Bearcats of late. Ultimately, UC’s experience, depth and homecourt advantage should win out. Cincinnati 75 USF 68