There are only four games left in the regular season for the Cincinnati Bearcats and the first of those final contests will be against the SMU Mustangs on Wednesday night. The American Athletic Conference clash will take place at Moody Coliseum as one team tries to keep its current success going and the other attempts to bounce back from a brutal loss.
The Bearcats are the team with the current success in this matchup. Despite the degree of difficulty, self-imposed or otherwise, the Bearcats have won their last three games, most recently avoiding a road upset against the UConn Huskies. Their current winning streak also features triumphs over UCF and Wichita State and has lifted them back into the national rankings.
Since there are only the quartet of games left for the Bearcats to solidify their position in the AAC Tournament, there is going to be a bit of scoreboard watching going on each time out the next week or so. At 12-2 in league play (and 23-4 overall), the Bearcats have a pretty tight grip on the No. 2 spot in the league standings, with a two-game lead over UCF and Temple. However, the race for the regular season crown doesn’t favor them. That doesn’t mean its over, with No. 8 Houston only up a single game over the Bearcats. If UC can win their next three games and the Cougars stumble just once, it could set up a monumental and title-defining matchup between the two programs on March 10 and if the Bearcats win that...
Before we get lost in what ifs and hypothetical scenarios, let’s snap back to the present and turn our attention to Wednesday's matchup.
Reintroducing the SMU Mustangs
The Mustangs have not had the worst season, but they may have hit rock bottom on Sunday. Facing off with UCF, the Mustangs were absolutely run off the floor, losing by 47 points on the road. Absolutely nothing worked on offense in the loss. No Mustang scored in double figures, even top scorer Jahmal McMurray. It wasn’t from lack of trying. McMurray took 17 shots in the loss, but only made three of them. His cold shooting was symptomatic of the entire team’s issues, as the Mustangs shot just 24.6 percent from the field. If you want even more evidence of the offensive struggle, the Knights had 19 field goals in the second half alone. The Mustangs had 17 for the whole game.
The offensive downfall was pretty odd to see. As good as UCF is defensively, the Mustangs have been one of the better offensive teams in the league. They are 38th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, and that’s even after Sunday. However, that number may be inflated by early season results because the Mustangs are 10th in the conference in shooting since league play began (41.5 percent) and 10th in three-point shooting (32.1 percent) as well. Considering how much their offense relies on long-range strikes, that’s a real problem.
McMurray is the driving force behind SMU’s offense, especially from three. He is scoring more points per game than anyone else on the roster (17.6) and taking eight threes per game. His efficiency in that area is solid (38.3 percent) and before finishing with only eight points against UCF, he had scored at least 20 in back-to-back games. The Beracats shouldn’t expecting the cold shooting streak to carry over on Wednesday.
As we learned in the first meeting between the Bearcats and Mustangs, depth is not a strength of SMU. Along with McMurray, the Mustangs rely on a trio of secondary contributors in Ethan Chargois (12.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG), Isiaha Mike (12.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Jimmy Whitt Jr. (12.2 PPG, 4.2 APG). Aside from them, however, the list of potential producers is rather small. Only one other active player is scoring at least seven points per game and the Mustangs have become an even more shallow team because Jarrey Foster (7.1 PPG) hasn’t played since Jan. 16.
Recapping the First Meeting
If you need proof of how depth has not been SMU’s friend, you only need to look at the first game between the Mustangs and Bearcats. UC held a 20-1 scoring edge off the bench in the contest, as Trevor Moore, Cane Broome and Eliel Nsoseme all made important contributions to the 73-68 victory.
Even with superior depth, the Bearcats didn’t just roll over the Mustangs. If you can believe it, they let a 10-point lead slip away in the second half but found a way to hold on for the win. Jarron Cumberland led the way, scoring 24 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists. It was yet another brilliant performance, but Cumberland has struggled a bit more recently, scoring a combined 19 points on just 27.2 percent shooting the last two games.
Cumberland was aided not only by some strong reserve play, but by a big second half from Keith Williams, who scored 10 of his 13 points in the final 20 minutes. He mirrored that effort in leading the Bearcats on Sunday, as he had just as many points in the second half of their win over UConn.
On the other side of the box score, the Bearcats were able to severely limit the scoring of some of SMU’s secondary contributors, but McMurray drained five three-pointers and finished with 21 points. Luckily for UC, it was able to mitigate some of that by equaling the Mustangs’ overall three-point production (30 points) and on better efficiency.
This a difficult one to predict. On the one hand, SMU really challenged the Bearcats in Cincinnati during the first meeting and Cumberland has been off of late. On the other hand, the Mustangs were just defeated by nearly 50 points and at 5-9 in league play and 13-13 overall, they aren’t particularly menacing. Something tells me that Cumberland isn’t going to go three-straight games with fewer than 15 points, which is bad news for SMU. If the Bearcats can push their depth advantage again, they’ll come home from Dallas with a win. Cincinnati 73 SMU 63