The Cincinnati Bearcats will hope that arctic temperatures and a week off will not cool them down as they face the SMU Mustangs in a battle of American Athletic Conference squads at Fifth Third Arena on Saturday.
As temperatures in many parts of the country dropped precipitously this week, the Bearcats (18-3, 7-1 AAC) have been basking in the glow of their six-game winning streak and preparing for this Saturday’s matchup. Their most recent win was of the come-from-behind variety. The Bearcats trailed by 14 points at Temple last Sunday but a massive edge on the boards allowed them to control the tempo and climb their way back. They will return to Fith Third Arena this weekend, which is good news since they are 13-1 at home.
Who are the SMU Mustangs?
The last couple seasons have been marred by regression for the Mustangs, who are far off the pace of the 30-win squad of 2016-17. They are still fighting their way to a respectability at 12-8 overall, but they have also lost three of their last four games while splitting their eight league games.
The Mustangs had a real chance to earn a win last time out, but they were devastated by a buzzer-beater on the road against Wichita State. The loss was doubly painful because SMU led by as many as 11 points before collapsing in the second half.
Despite their shortcomings in the standings, the Mustnags are still a very competent offensive team. They rank 35th in the country in adjusted offense, according to KenPom, while scoring 74.9 points per game. They aren’t an exceptional shooting team by any means, but they move the ball effectively and make smart decisions, ranking 34th nationally in assist to turnover ratio (1.305) and 48th in assists per possession (0.213), according to Team Rankings.
What they lack in depth, they make up for in solid production across the board from their starters. Back court mates Jahmal McMurray and Jimmy Whitt Jr. do the bulk of the scoring, averaging 18.4 and 12.8 points per game, respectively. McMurray has the real star power on the roster, especially with his three-point work. He is making 3.4 three-pointers per game on 39.1 percent shooting, which should strike some fear into the hearts of the Bearcats and their AAC-worst three-point defense. Whitt does his damage much closer to the basket ans is also the team’s top distributor (4.5 assists per game) and an active defender (1.7 steals per game).
Rather than be entirely back court focused, the Mustangs have talent up front as well. Ethan Chargois is a 6’9” sophomore who can stretch the floor with his shooting range (1.5 threes per game on 34.1 percent) and battle for rebounds on both ends (7.1 per game). Isiaha Mike is another sophomore forward in the starting lineup who can step out and drain shots (1.5 threes per game on 39.1 percent shooting), although his rebounding efforts aren’t as strong as Chargois’.
Another facet of SMU’s offense that we haven’t discussed is its emphasis on crashing the offensive glass. The Mustangs have a number of solid rebounders who work hard to create second chances. Chargois, Whitt and 6’8” freshman Feron Hunt are each averaging more than six total rebounds and two offensive rebounds per game. That’s not just by happenstance either. SMU is 39th in the nation in total offensive rebounds (257) and 16th in offensive rebound rate (35.1 percent), per Team Rankings.
On the other side, the Bearcats usually out hustle their opponents and really change the course of a game by winning on the offensive boards. Against Temple, UC had a mammoth 46-22 advantage in rebounds, including 16 on offense. That led to a 17-0 scoring edge in second chance points, which proved the difference in a game decided by four points.
The Temple game wasn’t the only time the Bearcats have dominated in this area. They are 13th in the country in offensive rebound rage (35.4 percent), according to Team Rankings and get some impressive production in the frontcourt from players like Nysier Brooks (2.2 offensive rebounds per game), Trevon Scott (1.9) and Eliel Nsoseme (1.2). However, even perimeter-minded guys like Keith Williams and Jarron Cumberland have shown some affinity for cleaning up after misses.
Since both of these teams make offensive rebounding part of their strategy, it is going to be particularly important for the Bearcats to finish possessions not just by forcing a missed shot but by ensuring they get the rebound that follows.
There are certainly some aspects of SMU’s game that will give UC trouble. The fact that they have shooters at all positions who can knock down shots will make for some difficult defensive matchups. In addition, the Bearcats won’t be able to bully the Mustangs around on the glass as easily as they did against Temple. Other than their incredible home court advantage, what will prove the difference for the Bearcats will be how effectively they finish possessions on both ends of the floor. That means taking and making efficient shots and playing from inbound to rebound on defense. The Bearcats usually excel at the latter and with Cumberland currently carrying the offense on his shoulders, they should be just fine in the former. Cincinnati 77 SMU 68