A very important weekend for the Cincinnati Bearcats will start a bit early, as they travel to face the Memphis Tigers at FedExForum on Thursday night.
This matchup with the Tigers begins a brief two-game road trip for the 19-3 Bearcats. Even though the trip won’t be overly drawn out, that shouldn’t downplay how difficult it will be. After taking on Memphis, the Bearcats will travel even further south (and west), marching straight into the Cougars’ lair against Houston on Sunday. But let’s not look too far ahead. For now, the Bearcats are putting their seven-game winning streak, 19-3 overall record, first-place tie in the American Athletic Conference and top 25 ranking on the line against the Tigers.
Who are the Memphis Tigers?
Big coaching hires are made every offseason. It’s the nature of organized sports. No program in the country may have made as big a splash as the Tigers last offseason, as they hired four-time NBA All Star Penny Hardaway as their head coach. Hardaway knows what it takes to succeed in collegiate basketball at Memphis, as he was a two-time All-American as a Tiger.
It may take a little longer for Hardaway to reach that type of success as a head coach. Memphis has been solid this season (13-9 overall), but certainly has a lot of ground to make up in comparison to the top teams in the AAC. They are just 5-4 in league contests and have lost three of their last four games. All three of those setbacks were on the road where the Tigers have really struggled (1-5). Luckily for them, this is a home game and they have claimed victory in 11 of 12 previous home tilts this season.
On the more data-driven side, the Tigers have their positive aspects (66th in adjusted offense, sixth in adjusted tempo), but they also have their shortcomings. They are 119th in adjusted defense, which speaks to a team-wide struggle with slowing down opponents. Conference foes are shooting 43.5 percent and scoring 77.4 points per game against Memphis, which rank eighth and 10th in the league, respectively.
Seniors Jeremiah Martin and Kyvon Davenport may not get a long time to thrive in Memphis’ high-powered offense under Hardaway, but they are doing well for themselves in the time they are allotted before graduation.
Martin orchestrates everything, with a 23.8 percent usage rate and a team-high average of 4.3 assists per game. He is also a volume scorer (16.3 PPG), but not the most efficient one, as his effective field goal percentage (50.2) isn’t too hot because of his mediocre work from three (31.7 percent) and at the foul line (68.7 percent). That didn’t really matter last time out when he dropped 41 points in a loss to USF
Davenport is a better three-point shooter (42.1 percent), but he gets more looks closer to the basket to average 14.4 points per game. The 6’8” forward is also the top rebounder on the roster (7.4 per game).
Other players to look out for include freshman Tyler Harris (12.6 PPG) and seniors Kareem Brewton Jr. (8.9 PPG) and Raynere Thornton (7.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG).
Opposite Offensive Outlooks
As a coach, Hardaway has emphasized a foot-on-the-gas-pedal offensive strategy. The Tigers are sixth in the country in adjusted tempo, as they average 75.6 possessions per 40 minutes. By getting the ball up and down the court at blistering speeds, the Tigers cause opponents to get sloppy defensively. They are 15th nationally in free throw attempts and a top 50 squad in free throw rate (27.4 percent) and foul shots made per 100 possessions (22.04), according to Team Rankings.
Obviously that type of style is like oil to UC’s water. The Bearcats move deliberately on offense and even though they can be lethal on the fast break, they prefer to take their time and let plays develop. They are 342nd in the country in adjusted tempo and that’s even with Jarron Cumberland playing the best basketball of his career. Cumberland is a perfect fit for the Bearcats because he can create for others, shoot from anywhere and make something out of nothing if everything falls apart. To that end, he is scoring 22.2 points per game in league play, which not only leads the AAC but is nearly three points more per game than the next best player.
The clash of styles between these two teams will make for fascinating spectating. Therein lies the primary key to this game. Whichever team is better able to exert their will on the tempo will be at a supreme advantage. That means the Bearcats need to do everything they can to slow things down and force Memphis to play in the halfcourt where they may not be as comfortable. A team as defensively sound as the Bearcats should be able to do that, even if the degree of difficulty is lifted by the road environment. Cincinnati 74 Memphis 68