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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. UCF Knights

The Bearcats will try to fend off a challenge to their hold on second place in the American Athletic Conference in a matchup of defensive powers.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Central Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bearcats have played every team in the American Athletic Conference except for one. They will remedy that on Thursday when they host the UCF Knights at Fifth Third Arena on Thursday night.

Most of the run-ins with league foes have gone well for the Bearcats, who are second in the AAC standings with a 10-2 mark. That has helped elevate their overall record (21-4) and allowed them to maintain their standing in relation to the national polls and NCAA Tournament projections.

In their last time out, the Bearcats finished a season sweep of Wichita State with a 72-62 win at home. They are finishing their current two-game home stand on Thursday against UCF, which is a team not to be underestimated.

Who are the UCF Knights?

The preseason pick to the win the league hasn’t lived up to that billing entirely, but the Knights are still one of the best teams in the AAC. They are just a game back of the Bearcats in the conference standings and a win away from joining them as the third 20-win team in the league this season. They have really added to their win collection recently, claiming victories in three-straight since a 77-68 loss to Houston on Feb. 7. All together, they have already matched their win total from last season, both overall and in league play. That has spelled continued support for their chances of making the NCAA Tournament in the third season under Johnny Dawkins, even if they remain on the bubble.

Although their record is largely impressive (19-5), there is no denying that the Knights have underperformed to a degree. They are outside the top 50 teams in the country in both adjusted offense and adjusted defense despite playing the 117th toughest schedule, according to KenPom.

One of the real weaknesses of the Knights is their free throw shooting. They are tied with USF for the worst free throw percentage in the AAC (63.7). Any progress at all would really help them since 22.9 percent of their points come from the foul line, which is the 18th-highest mark in the nation. In addition, no other team attempts more foul shots per offensive play, according to Team Rankings.

We’ll get to what the Knights do as a team that will cause problems for the Bearcats, but on an individual level, the players to watch are B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall.

Taylor makes the offense go. He leads the team in scoring (16.9 PPG) and is the top distributor (3.5 APG). He is also one of the few three-point threats (38.1 percent) on the roster. Taylor’s defense is not consistent enough (102.4 defensive rating), but his offensive exploits make up for it.

Dawkins is a much better defender (97.1 defensive rating) than his backourt mate and he works well as the second option to Taylor. He is a good long-range shooter (37.1 percent on 5.5 attempts per game) and is averaging 15.3 points per game.

Fall is the engine that makes UCF’s impressive defense run. The 7’6” center is a natural rim protector (11.9 block percentage) who makes it impossible to consistently get buckets in the paint. Fall also has his offensive skills, as he is shooting 73.9 percent from the floor, albeit mostly from up close. However, his inefficiency at the foul line (34.6 percent on 5.5 attempts per game) is a major reason the Knights have so much trouble there.

Defensive Struggle Imminent

Even if the stakes are high for this game, it still might not be fun to watch. During one of their two meetings last season, the Bearcats gutted out a 49-38 win during which both teams traded defensive haymakers. The Bearcats only scored 15 points in the first half and the Knights were limited to 30 percent shooting during the entire game. The final result might have been nice to see for UC supports, but the rest of it wasn’t.

Although the Bearcats went on to rout the Knights 77-40 later on that season, its much more likely we are in for another bruising defensive game on Thursday. There are many reasons to think that, but the simplest one is that the Bearcats and Knights rank second and third in the conference in scoring defense, respectively. Nothing is that simple, of course, so let’s look a little deeper.

Both teams make life difficult close to the rim. The Bearcats are tied for 10th in the country in block percentage while UCF is tied for 24th. Most of UC’s shot blocking acumen can be found with Nysier Brooks, who swatted five against the Shockers on Sunday and is on pace to set a career-high in block percentage (10.3 percent). Fall is the obvious shot-blocker for the Knights but senior forward Chad Brown is blocking 1.2 shots per game off the bench as well.

Pace of play also lends itself to low scoring affairs for both of these teams. We all know that the Bearcats move deliberately and try to slow games down, forcing offenses to play them in the half court rather than in transition. That’s why they are 342nd in the country in adjusted tempo. UCF may be a bit quicker, but not by much, ranking 309th.

When you add these two factors together, you get a game where two patient offenses attempt to find shots while avoiding a heavily protected and sometimes clogged lane. That’s not exactly the equation for offensive bliss, but whichever team executes the strategy best will enjoy a win.

Prediction Time!

If you didn’t already know, this is a big game for both of these teams. The Bearcats are considered the second-best team in the AAC, but their hold on that title is far from ironclad. The Knights trail them by just one game in the league standings and, with a win on Thursday, they would pull even.

As discussed just a few sentences ago, this game is going to be crushing defensively. That could mean whichever squad has the better offensive creator, both for himself and others, will have an advantage. Taylor has been great for the Knights, but his production doesn’t match what Jarron Cumberland has been doing for the Bearcats. The junior wing leads the entire conference in scoring (19.3 PPG) but he also creates for his teammates (3.5 APG), crashes the boards (4.2 RPG) and plays solid defense. His three-point shooting has been particularly effective (43.5 percent on 6.2 attempts), which will be useful in a game when closer shots may be difficult to come by.

Speaking of three-point shooting, that might prove to be a real advantage for the Bearcats. If the paint really is as blanketed as expected, the team with better shooters should prevail. Taylor and Dawkins are both solid from long range, but with Cumberland and Justin Jenifer, the Bearcats have the two best three-point shooters by percentage in the conference. Add in the recent resurgence of Cane Broome, who has made 42.9 percent of his threes the last four games, and there’s reason to believe the Bearcats will have the upper hand, both from three and on the scoreboard. Cincinnati 65 UCF 58