It’s time for the Cincinnati Bearcats to take their current three-game winning streak on the road. They will do so by traveling to take on the Wichita State Shockers at Charles Koch Arena on Saturday afternoon.
It’s difficult to really evaluate the Bearcats right now. On a surface level, they are doing great. They are 15-3 overall, which has them well on their way to their ninth-straight NCAA Tournament. They are also right in the mix for their second-straight American Athletic Conference title, with a 4-1 mark in league play that has them tied with Houston and Temple for first place.
Here comes the other shoe. Although it may be a pessimistic viewpoint, the Bearcats have just barely scraped by in their last three games, defeating Tulsa, UConn and USF by a combined 12 points. Then there’s the blemish of a loss to East Carolina earlier this month. How they’ve played recently is bringing them back toward the middle of the college basketball world, as they are currently ranked 34th in adjusted efficiency margin, after flirting with the top 20 earlier in the season. For a team that is only 2-2 on the road this season, the Bearcats need to be careful on Saturday.
Who are the Wichita State Shockers?
That is especially true because the Shockers are coming off their biggest win of the season. While they aren’t boxing with the top teams in the conference like they did a year ago, the Shockers downed UCF on Wednesday to keep their season alive. That sounds like hyperbole, but they have only split their first 16 games of the year. They can’t afford to lose much more the rest of the way. Luckily for them, they have been much better at home (6-2) than on the road (0-4). They still have a lot of work to do, having lost four-straight before topping the Knights, but there is some hope left.
You can’t entirely give up on Wichita State because of the infrastructure of the program itself. Gregg Marshall is still calling the shots, and he has led the Shockers to seven-straight NCAA Tournament appearances. However, even with Marshall constructing the game-plan, the Shockers are not playing at the same level they did last year. They are scoring only 105.3 points per 100 possessions and giving up an even 100.2. That’s a pretty OK offense with an even more average defense.
Against UCF, the Shockers found a bit more offensive success than they’ve managed this season. While the game was played at a relatively slow pace, Wichita State produced an offensive rating of 113.8 while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. Markis McDuffie did the bulk of the damage, netting 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a 2-of-4 mark from beyond the arc. He was the only Shocker to find any success from three, as the rest of the team went 2-for-11 from deep.
Another positive indication for the Shockers was their work on the boards. While they are just 10th in the conference in rebounding during league play, they held a 35-22 edge in rebounds against the Knights.
Continuing that type of effort on the glass may be difficult, but we can expect another bushel of points from the 6’8” McDuffie, who is averaging 19.6 points per game. His efficiency could use some work, but his true shooting rate (56.5 percent) is perfectly acceptable, especially since he can shoot from three (39.4 percent) and at the foul line (82.9 percent).
As for other primary contributors, senior guard Samajae Haynes-Jones (13.1 PPG, 3.1 APG) and junior center Jaime Echenique (8.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.3 BPG) both bring plenty to the table.
A Heavy Burden
Jarron Cumberland is on an absolute tear right now. He scored a career-high 34 points against USF on Tuesday and is averaging 22 points per game against conference opponents. His volume hasn’t exactly been matched by efficiency in that span, as he’s shooting just 42.7 percent from the floor, but with a true shooting mark of 57.9 percent and an incredible weight resting on his shoulders offensively (31.0 percent usage rate), that can be forgiven.
Cumberland isn’t the only Bearcat being asked to do a lot. As conference play has set in and the games themselves have become hotly contested, Mick Cronin has leaned heavily on a smaller number of players. It’s a pretty common part of his coaching strategy and something we’ve seen before, even with teams deeper than the current one. Cumberland is barely ever taken off the floor (35.8 minutes per game in conference play), while the rest of the starters average anywhere between 23.4 and 29.4 minutes per night. That’s not that far off from the minutes allotment for the season, but both Cumberland and Keith Williams are playing five more minutes per game against the AAC, while guys like Trevor Moore, Rashawn Fredericks and Logan Johnson have taken noticeable cuts.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bearcats have been plenty successful relying mostly on a six-man rotation this season and in the past. In addition, Fredericks and Johnson are both new to the program and still learning the system, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to be given big minutes. However, if the Bearcats keep finding themselves in fist fights like the last few games have been, they’ll need their best guys to be fresh in crunch time. That could require some rotational experimentation so Cumberland, Williams and the rest of the starters can recharge.
The scoring duel between Cumberland and McDuffie and the chess match between Mick Cronin and Marshall are going to decide this game. Both Cumberland and McDuffie can pour it in from all over the floor, so the team that defends better will have a huge advantage. The Bearcats have a few players with the lateral quickness and defensive acumen to slow a versatile scorer like McDuffie, particularly Trevon Scott. You can bet Cronin has been making that a focal point of practice this week. It’s still a lot to ask to win in Wichita, especially when the Bearcats struggled on the road against East Carolina and Tulsa, but when everyone is playing to their potential, they have what it takes.
Cincinnati 71 Wichita State 67