Ever since the American Athletic Conference rose from the ashes of the Big East in 2013, the collection of teams that have claimed a league title has been pretty small. SMU has won two outright titles, Temple has won one and the Cincinnati Bearcats have won one and shared another with Louisville, which is now in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It’s a small sample size, but with three current teams in the conference holding the hardware, parity has not been exceptionally high.
UC was the most recent champion, having won both the regular season and conference tournament championships last spring. As defending champs, the Bearcats know what it takes to cut down the nets and as one of the most successful teams since the AAC’s inception, they have been in the mix every year. This season will be no different, but there is a real chance that the team left standing at the end will be someone else. UC’s mission is to not let that happen.
That brings us to Wednesday’s matchup with the Tulane Green Wave at Fifth Third Arena, which serves as the conference opener for both teams and the first step of the Bearcats’ title defense. With a 10-2 overall record through non-league play, they are certainly one of the top contenders.
Who are the Tulane Green Wave?
Before we talk about Tulane, I’d like to talk about the Alabama A&M Bulldogs. As of writing, they are ranked 348th in the country in adjusted efficiency margin and sporting a record of just 1-13. The Bulldogs are not a good team by any stretch of the imagination. Despite that fact, they managed to win their first game of the season on Dec. 22 when they played… Tulane.
It’s been that kind of season for the Green Wave, who have grown accustomed to renting space in the AAC cellar. At 4-8 overall, they are the only team in the conference with a losing record and likely headed for their fifth-straight campaign below .500. Playing in their third year under head coach Mike Dunleavy, the Green Wave were always going to face an uphill climb after the departure of stars Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds, who both averaged more than 15 points per game last season. Without those two, the Green Wave have really dropped off in terms of offensive success. They are scoring only 68.8 points per game while playing at a rather pedestrian tempo.
Sophomore guard Caleb Daniels has taken on the mantle of primary scoring option. He is producing 15.8 points per game and is the team’s most efficient threat from beyond the arc (37 percent shooting on 3.8 attempts per game). Daniels is flanked by Jordan Cornish and Shakwon Barrett, who are both sizable wings who can distribute, but have been more of a drain than a help offensively. Both have offensive ratings below 90.0 and Cornish has been worth -0.4 offensive win shares.
While Daniels is the most potent offensive player on the roster, redshirt junior forward Samir Sehic is probably the best two-way threat. As the only player on the team with an offensive rating above 100 and a defensive rating below 100, Sehic is producing 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. While not an overly efficient shooter, he can spread the floor to an extent and open up space for Tulane’s collection of ball-handlers.
Recapping Cincinnati’s Non-Conference Schedule
The Bearcats have been off since Dec. 22 when they defeated South Carolina State 77-56 at Fifth Third Arena. That victory pushed them to 10-2 overall this season, which is a pretty solid mark through the 12 non-league games on the schedule. The argument could be made that they should have done better since their slate is ranked outside the top 200 toughest according to KenPom, but 10 wins in 12 games is nothing to be upset about.
The most impressive wins of the campaign were against Ole Miss, Xavier and UCLA. The former is 10-2 itself and has a top 30 offense while ranking 47th in adjusted efficiency margin. Despite those somewhat solid metrics, UC handled the Rebels rather easily, claiming a 71-57 victory in the championship game of the Emerald Coast Classic on Nov. 24. Jarron Cumberland willed himself to a game-high 25 points, while UC’s defense scored 17 points off turnovers and held Ole Miss to 37.3 percent shooting, including a 3-for-21 effort from beyond the arc.
Wins against Xavier and UCLA would have looked better in previous seasons, but the Musketeers and Bruins are still top 100 teams in adjusted efficiency margin and the Bearcats had no trouble with them. That was especially true against the Bruins, as UC laid waste to what was then Steve Alford’s team in a 93-64 blowout. Cumberland also scored 25 in that game and the Bearcats controlled the glass while scoring 20 points off of turnovers.
In the Crosstown Shootout victory, the Bearcats once again turned opponent mistakes into points, scoring 17 off of turnovers to outpace the Musketeers. Cumberland was the top scorer in this game as well (19 points), but Keith Williams cemented his breakout season with a 16-point effort as well.
What is currently holding UC back from being grouped among the elite teams in the country are llosses to Ohio State and Mississippi State. The two teams rank 25th and 20th, respectively, in the country in adjusted efficiency margin, according to KenPom, and both teams pulled off wins against the Bearcats. A disastrously slow start doomed them against Ohio State, as they connected on only 13.8 percent of their first half field goals. Poor shooting, especially from three-point range, was the culprit against the Bulldogs, with the Bearcats being outscored 36-9 from beyond the arc.
The Bearcats will have a chance to rectify their troubles against elite competition later on this season, but Tulane is far from that distinction. A fully rested UC squad should get an easy win to start their conference title defense. Cincinnati 78 Tulane 60