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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at Temple Owls

Two teams right in the thick of the American Athletic Conference title chase are set to do battle on Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Temple Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

To start one of their most difficult stretches of the season, the Cincinnati Bearcats will travel to Philadelphia to contend with the Temple Owls in a clash of American Athletic Conference powers on Sunday afternoon.

Following an absolute decimation of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Thursday, the Bearcats (17-3, 6-1 AAC) have won five-straight games and are locked in a tie with the Houston Cougars for first place in the conference. Over the next couple weeks, the Bearcats will really get to test their mettle against the rest of the league as they play three of their next four games on the road. It begins with Sunday’s clash with the Owls. They will then play SMU at home before playing back-to-back road games against Memphis and Houston. But first things first.

Who are the Temple Owls?

Temple isn’t too far behind UC and Houston for the top spot in the league. The Owls have won five of their last six games and are the only team in the conference to hand Houston a defeat to this point. Most recently, they took down Memphis 85-76 at home this past Thursday, improving to 8-1 at home in the process. That may not be as impressive as UC’s 13-1 home mark, but considering the Bearcats are just 3-2 in true road games, Temple’s home court edge at the Liacouras Center should not be ignored. Just ask the Cougars.

The Owls, who are in the final year under head coach Fran Dunphy, are having a renaissance of sorts. After winning 16 and 17 games in the last two seasons, respectively, they are already up to 15 wins this year and looking for more. A top 100 team in both adjusted offense and defense, the Owls are fairly well-balanced and a challenge for anyone, including the Bearcats. During conference play, no team is scoring more (80.5 PPG), while the Owls are also econd in three-point shooting (39.6 percent) during that time. That could spell doom for the Bearcats, who are still last in the conference in three-point defense overall (36 percent).

Shizz Alston Jr. is the guy who makes the Owls go on offense. The 6’4” senior guard is not only the team’s top scorer (18.5 PPG) but he lets it fly from three-point range (8.3 attempts per game) and is also the best Temple distributor (5.2 APG). Despite those numbers, 6’8” junior swingman Quinton Rose has the ball in his hands more often (29.7 percent usage rate) and takes more shots than anyone on the roster (16.3 per game). That has led to a 17.1 points per game mark, which only trails Alston because Rose is not the most efficient shooter, especially with less than ideal marks from three (23.3 percent) and at the foul line (67.1 percent).

Rounding out Temple’s big three is 6’4” sophomore Nate Pierre-Louis, who is averaging 14.2 points per game on respectable shooting splits (.497/.340/.714). Beyond those three, the Owls lack depth. No other player averages more than seven points or five field goal attempts per game, although senior center Ernest Aflakpui at least takes care of business on the boards (7.5 per game).

Turnover Talk

There are a number of reasons that UC and Temple have been successful. One that they have in common is turnover margin. These are the two best teams in the AAC in creating turnovers on defense and avoiding them on offense. The Bearcats lead the league in turnover margin (+4.2) and the Owls are right behind them (+3.79).

The key to Temple’s dominance in this area is their defense, as they are fourth in the country in both steals per possession and steals per defensive play. When possession changes, both teams are equally careful with the ball. The Owls are 28th nationally in turnovers per possession, which is just a few spots behind UC (23rd). Alston and Rose are most responsible for handling the ball for the Owls and their less than 13 percent turnover rates explain Temple’s careful play. UC has five primary contributors with an assist rate below 13 percent, and even top scorer Jarron Cumberland (18.1 PPG) is at only 13.6 percent despite a sky-high usage rate (30.8 percent).

Prediction Time

Let’s list the reasons the Owls have the edge in this contest. They can match UC’s ability to force turnovers on defense and limit them on offense. They have some excellent guards and an offense that can shoot effectively from long range, something the Bearcats have struggled to defend usually. Plus, the Owls are playing at home.

Now let’s list the reasons the Bearcats have the edge. The Bearcats are a deeper team which can rely on a number of contributors to score points and play great defense. Speaking of defense, the Bearcats may not be as good as Temple at stealing the ball, but they are leaps and bounds ahead in rim protection, blocking an AAC-leading 5.1 shots per game. That speaks to UC’s primary advantage. With Nysier Brooks, Trevon Scott and the emergence of Eliel Nsoseme, the Bearcats are much sturdier up front than the Owls. Whether that wins out against Temple’s superior scoring ability remains to be seen, but with Cumberland, Justin Jenifer and Keith Williams manning the wings, its not as if UC is without scoring punch in the backcourt.

Now that we’ve looked at it, its clear that this is still going to be a difficult game no matter how much deeper and frontcourt inclined the Bearcats are. Temple 71 Cincinnati 70