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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at East Carolina Pirates

The Bearcats won their first American Athletic Conference game. Now they will try to do it again.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

After securing an easy win over Tulane on Wednesday, the Cincinnati Bearcats will be on the road this weekend, as they take on the East Carolina Pirates in Greenville, North Carolina Saturday afternoon.

The Bearcats have been dominating of late. They scored 93 points when they blew past Tulane by 32. Two weeks before that, they rolled to 29-point win over a UCLA team in free fall. Somehow, South Carolina State has been the most “competitive” foe for the Bearcats since a Dec. 15 loss to Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs lost to UC by 21 points.

Such a dominating winning streak can partially be explained by the level of competition. Tulane and South Carolina State are ranked 271st and 337th in the country in adjusted efficiency margin, according to KenPom, and UCLA just fired its head coach earlier this week.

Even with those qualifiers, there is no denying that the now 12-2 Bearcats are playing some of their best basketball right now. That brings us to their next opponent: the Pirates of East Carolina.

Who are the East Carolina Pirates?

The scheduling powers did the Bearcats a favor by setting up Tulane and East Carolina as their first two opponents in league play. The Pirates aren’t as bad as the Green Wave, but they’re pretty close, ranking 266th in adjusted efficiency margin. Despite struggles on both ends of the floor, the Pirates have managed to hover above .500 this season, as they are 7-6 through the first 13 games. Their weaknesses and potential downfall were exposed on Wednesday, however, as the Pirates were eviscerated 82-54 on the road against SMU.

Even if they may ultimately fall short of even contending for the AAC title this season, the Pirates have at least shown some signs of life. Under new head coach Joe Dooley, they are only three victories away from matching their entire win total from a year ago and scoring more than they have since 2014. At just under 70 points per game, that scoring rate still isn’t overly impressive, but its pointed in the right direction. Dooley has actually done more in turning the defense around, as the Pirates are allowing 68.2 points per game, while ranking among the top 50 teams in the country in opponent effective field goal percentage, according to Team Rankings.

Those defensive improvements were nowhere to be seen against the Mustangs. The Pirates allowed 49.2 percent shooting to their hosts, while being absolutely bullied in the paint, where they were outscored 42-26. They answered with just 33.9 percent shooting themselves. It was a recipe for a rough night, especially on the road.

ECU’s top two players by offensive rating are Jayden Gardner (121.7) and Shawn Williams (108.0). Gardner is an all-conference talent who is producing like a veteran despite his freshman status. He is scoring 18.8 points per game on 63.7 percent true shooting. The 6’6” forward is also the team leader in rebounds (8.6 per game) and rebound rate (15.8 percent). Williams was the top freshman in the AAC a year ago and is holding serve this season, netting 13.5 points per game while letting it fly from three-point range (7.8 attempts per game).

Both Gardner and Williams played at least 30 minutes against SMU, but the youth movement was a little stalled, as they had 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting combined, with Gardner also turning the ball over five times. Seth LeDay is another double-figure scorer (12.2 PPG) and he also lends a hand on the boards (6.8 per game), but he was limited to two points and four boards in 15 minutes against the Mustangs.

More Like Cincinnati Share-cats

The Bearcats have been moving the ball crisply around the floor on offense. As a team, they have averaged 20.7 assists per game during their current three-game winning streak. Efficient ball movement has kept the offense flowing and made for fewer empty trips down the floor. In fact, the Bearcats rank 24th in the country in assists per possession (0.230).

A trio of players has been at the center of this distribution surge.

Justin Jenifer has always been more of a passer than a scorer, but he’s taken that to a new level this season. The senior point guard is averaging a career-high 4.5 assists per game, which is two more than his previous best. He also leads the Bearcats in assist rate (32.6 percent) and has a minuscule 0.5 turnovers per game average. Add in lights out shooting from beyond the arc (47.7 three-point field goal percentage) and Jenifer has become an indispensable force.

Meanwhile, two shoot-first backcourt members are learning to share more often.

Cane Broome has already shown he can be the playmaker for the offense, as he averaged 8.2 assists per 100 possessions last season. That rate has gone down some this year (7.2), but Broome is still third on the team in assist rate (22.4 percent).

Jarron Cumberland’s growth as a distributor has been a more surprising and welcome development. With a much larger bulk of the offense resting on his shoulders, the junior wing is scoring better than he ever has, but he’s also making plays for those around him. He is second on the team with a career-high assist rate of 22.6 percent while sporting a usage rate of 30.0 percent.

Jenifer, Broome and Cumberland all worked in harmony as part of the starting backcourt against Tulane. They combined on 13 of the team’s 20 assists and had just one turnover between them. As if that weren’t enough, they also combined to produce 57 points, proving that passing doesn’t mean you can’t score as well.

Prediction Time!

Even with an improved defense and two blue chip players in Gardner and Williams, the Pirates are matching up with the champs this time around. The Bearcats already defend at an elite level and with the offense hitting a new gear thanks to improved distribution, they are turning into a frightening foe for any team. Cincinnati 75 East Carolina 58