For the second time this season, the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies will face each other. To do so, they will take to the court at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut as they settle their differences in American Athletic Conference play.
The Bearcats needed 74 points and an overtime session to take down the Huskies when they clashed at Fifth Third Arena on Jan. 12. While it was a close call, it was still a win and UC has a lot of those. After rallying to defeat the UCF Knights on Thursday thanks to Justin Jenifer and Keith Williams, they are now 22-4 overall and 11-2 against the AAC.
As we get closer to March, the Bearcats are in a great position to at least get the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, unless they can overtake first-place Houston in the next few weeks. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, however, let’s take a look at Sunday’s matchup.
Reintroducing the UConn Huskies
Considering how difficult the Huskies made it for the Bearcats in that first game, UConn has not exactly been competitive this year. They will enter Sunday with a four-game losing streak, capped by a 77-59 rout at the hands of the SMU Mustangs this past Thursday. At 13-13 overall, you might think that they have at least been able to hang with the rest of the AAC, but their 4-9 conference record ruins that thought. You could make the argument that it hasn’t been entirely their fault, as they rank 338th in the country in KenPom’s luck rating metric, but there’s no denying that the first season under head coach Dan Hurley hasn’t been a complete success.
In their recent loss to SMU, the Huskies just couldn’t put the ball through the net consistently. They shot just 30 percent from the floor and, even when they were given free throws, they were still inefficient (53.8 percent). Interestingly enough, they were destroyed in paint scoring (40-20), but had more offensive rebounds (18-5) and second chance points (12-5). That really didn’t matter when the Mustangs were shooting 57.1 percent and doing whatever they wanted on offense.
During the non-conference slate, Hurley’s offensive philosophy seemed like it was infusing new life into the Huskies, but that has slowed a bit since AAC play began. The Huskies are averaging 76.6 points per game overall this season, but that mark drops by five whole points against AAC foes. In addition, their season-long scoring margin (+5.4) is whittled down to just +0.4 in conference games. They are still a top 100 team in adjusted offense, but just barely, ranking 95th. A major reason for the offensive downturn is the loss of top scorer Jalen Adams, who has been out since early February with an MCL sprain, as well as a long stretch without Alterique Gilbert, who sat for five games before returning to the floor on Thursday.
With Adams and Gilbert sidelined, Christian Vital has stepped up. The 6’2” guard is scoring 15.6 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 60.3 in conference play, powered primarily by his excellent three-point shooting (41.7 percent on 6.5 attempts per league game). In the last five contests, he is averaging 15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game, while shouldering a ton of offensive responsibility by taking 12 shots a night. While he has gotten help from guys like Tyler Polley (19 points against SMU), Vital has been asked to be everything for the Huskies. He’s done a pretty great job, but the Huskies need to get him more consistent help. Getting Gilbert back into the mix should help with that.
Moving to the defense, the Huskies can be solid at times but make too many mistakes to be considered elite. One of the biggest problems they have is keeping opponents from the free throw line, as they rank 311th in the country in opponent free throw attempts per game, according to Team Rankings. That may not end up hurting them as much this time. UC is only shooting 68.4 percent at the foul line after all. However, the Bearcats did just sink 11-of-12 at the line against UCF so the Huskies can’t hope to win with a hack-a-Bearcat strategy.
Recapping the First Meeting
The Bearcats were riding high and seemed ready to complete a convincing win over the Huskies when they took a 46-35 lead over the them in the second half on a Williams layup. Then everything went cold and they made just 2-of-13 shots during the rest of regulation. The Huskies battled back and both Cane Broome and Jenifer missed key free throws in the final minutes as the game went to overtime.
The extra period was just as difficult as those last dozen regulation minutes, especially when Jenifer missed two free throws with the Bearcats clinging to a 74-72 lead with seven seconds remaining. Fortunately, the Huskies weren’t even able to get a shot off before the final buzzer sounded, yielding the victory to the Bearcats in the process.
Jarron Cumberland was pretty exceptional in the win, scoring 22 points to go with seven assists, six rebounds and two steals across 42 minutes. He also made 11-of-12 at the foul line where the Bearcats had a 25-13 scoring edge overall, even if they only made 65.8 percent of their 38 (!) attempts.
Nysier Brooks added 17 points and six rebounds to help the Bearcats win the scoring contest in the paint (32-26) while forcing the Huskies to play at a pace they preferred. Although that didn’t entirely stop UConn, which had a 33-15 scoring edge from three, it did lead to some transition opportunities for the Bearcats who outscored the Huskies 17-8 off of turnovers.
As for the rebounding game, the Huskies showed that they could match the Bearcats, which makes sense since the two teams are tied for second in the AAC in rebounding margin (+3.8).
If both teams were at full strength, this could be a very frightening game for the Bearcats. They just barely escaped against UCF on Thursday and the Huskies are 12-3 at home this season. However, even with Gilbert back, the Huskies just aren’t the same team without Adams. Their current four-game losing streak proves that. UConn will definitely get a boost from the home crowd, but the Bearcats will know to pressure Vital and force the issue defensively, which should ultimately lead to a road victory. Cincinnati 68 UConn 62