Whether or not it was enough to get them back into the national rankings, Sunday’s win over the Wichita State Shockers was a necessary outcome for the Cincinnati Bearcats and their quest to repeat as American Athletic Conference champions. After stewing in the disappointment of last week’s loss to the first place Houston Cougars, the Bearcats had to wait seven days to put another mark in the win column and maintain their spot in the title chase.
Among the many factors that led to a UC victory, it was the defensive effort that really carried the day. The Bearcats completely befuddled the Shockers, forcing contested shots and making it difficult for any rhythm to be established. The Bearcats limited the visiting Shockers to just 21 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes and, even when shots started to fall a bit more regularly, to a 32 percent success rate in the final 20 minutes. The trouble they usually have with defending the three was nowhere to be found, as other than Dexter Dennis (4-of-8 from three), the Shockers couldn’t consistently drain triples (9-of-35).
The Bearcats’ defensive game plan clearly centered on stopping Wichita State’s best scorers and daring the rest of the roster to beat them. Markis McDuffie, who is averaging just shy of 19 points per game, scored 21 points in the first meeting between these teams but was held to only 13 on 4-of-15 from the field. That marked the senior forward’s lowest scoring output since Jan. 26. In addition, Samajae Haynes-Jones, who is the only other Shocker averaging in double figures (12.7 PPG), was limited to only eight points on 3-of-13 shooting.
With so much success on defense, the Bearcats didn’t need to be incredible offensively. In a game they won by 10 points, they still only made 34.5 percent of their field goal tries. Surprisingly, it was shooting closer to the basket that proved the most difficult task. While they made a solid 10-of-22 from three, the Bearcats only scored 18 points in the paint and netted only 27.8 percent of their two-point shots. Jarron Cumberland really personified this offensively curious performance. He poured in 27 points, but did most of his damage from long range (6-of-10) while struggling from closer to the hoop (2-of-10). This is a bit of a carry-over from the Houston game when Cumberland made only 5-of-17 from two but still managed 27 points.
While Cumberland carried the offense, he wasn’t alone entirely. Keith Williams was one of the players to actually score efficiently from close range, while his aggression in getting to the hoop paid off at the foul line. The sophomore wing made 9-of-10 foul shots and went 3-of-6 from the field to finish with 15 points. He was at the forefront of yet another win built partially on free throw opportunity dominance. The Bearcats outscored the Shockers 22-16 at the line, while taking 12 more attempts.
In addition to Williams’ scoring outputs, the quiet resurgence of Cane Broome continued, as the senior point guard scored 12 points, while making 2-of-4 from three-point range. Broome has scored in double figures in four of the last six games and connected on 42.9 percent from three in the last three, which is a very promising trend considering his disastrous 21.7 percent long-range shooting entering Sunday.
Another encouraging development, especially compared to the Houston game, was the playing time of Justin Jenifer. The team’s starting point guard only played 13 minutes against the Cougars and it appeared like he was destined for another slow day against Wichita State. Jenifer only logged four minutes in the first half, but he played the full 20 in the second half. While that doesn’t prove that everything is fine, it at least shows that he is well enough to play extended minutes.
For all the positives in this win, there were still some problems that need to be worked out. In a drastic twist, the Bearcats were out-rebounded by a 51-42 margin, including a 19-10 difference on the offensive glass. The Shockers managed to keep the game from getting too far out of reach by using those offensive rebounds to outscore the Bearcats 23-6 in second chance points. This was despite eight rebounds apiece from Trevon Scott and Rashawn Fredericks as well as six from Nysier Brooks.
Speaking of Scott and Brooks, the Bearcats’ starting frontcourt options were miserable on offense (2-of-14 from the field combined). Brooks’ showing was particularly difficult to take in because it continues a troubling trend for the 6’11” center. Brooks has now averaged 5.4 points on 32.5 percent shooting during his last seven games. At the least, the Bearcats were plus-20 with Brooks on the floor because he erased five shots via blocks, while Scott handed out four assists and tied for the team lead in rebounds.
If the Bearcats defend like they did on Sunday, it won’t matter what else they do. While its unlikely that every future opponent will shoot below 30 percent, its also unlikely that the Bearcats will get so outworked on the glass or struggle so much with close range shots. For now they can just be pleased with a conference win they very much needed.
Best Individual Stat Line - Jarron Cumberland
Even if all his shots didn’t fall, Cumberland still shot very well from three and also added six rebounds and five assists to his game-high point total.