Rivalries can really sneak up on you. Prior to last season, the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Houston Cougars were just conference foes who played each other a couple times every year. Then they played three increasingly epic showdowns during UC’s run to the American Athletic Conference title and everything changed. While the Cougars are nowhere near the same level of rival as Xavier, they have certainly become the Bearcats’ biggest adversary in the AAC.
This new rivalry is about to have its first chapter of the 2018-19 season written, as the Bearcats travel to Houston for a showdown with the Cougars on Sunday afternoon.
Last year’s Bearcats won 31 games, including two against Houston, capped by a one-point victory in the AAC Tournament title game. This year’s team has a much different look, but the success is still there. UC just wrapped up its 20th victory, marking its ninth-straight season with at least that many wins. The Bearcats also are ranked No. 25 in the country and remain a top 30 team in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. They are playing their best basketball recently, even if that has coincided with some rather turbulent victories. Still, eight wins in a row means you’re doing something right and its what has helped the Bearcats keep pace with the Cougars at the top of the AAC standings.
Who are the Houston Cougars?
Much in the same way the Bearcats have found a way to recharge following the departure of AAC Player of the Year Gary Clark, all-league first team member Jacob Evans and the ever reliable Kyle Washington, the Cougars have ascended despite losing their own all-conference first teamer in Rob Gray. While it would be folly to say that they are better without Gray, the Cougars are 22-1 overall, 9-1 in conference action and owners of the No. 12 spot in the most recent AP poll.
Guard play is the key to Houston’s powerful attack. With a trio of Corey Davis Jr., Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson Jr., the Cougars have guys that can play all different types of roles.
Davis is the best scorer in terms of volume and efficiency, netting 15.5 points per game on a true shooting rate of 57 percent. He makes and takes plenty of shots from three and when he decides to put the ball on the deck, he is nearly automatic, especially if he draws contact and goes to the line. Davis isn’t just a find-his-own-shot kind of player. He can also make plays for others (18.8 assist percentage) and is an effective defender (94.8 defensive rating).
Brooks doesn’t have the all-around profile that Davis does, but that doesn’t make him less valuable. The 6’3” junior makes it rain from long range, with a sky-high three-point rate (0.722) and nearly nine attempts from three per game. He doesn’t just throw everything up and hope for the best either, as he is netting 39 percent from three. In addition to his scoring efforts (14.3 PPG), he is a skilled player on the boards, averaging a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game.
Then there’s Robinson, who takes a backseat to Davis and Brooks on the scoring side, but makes up for it with impressive distribution ability. He is averaging 5.4 assists per game compared with 1.7 turnovers. His ability to see the floor and anticipate the flow of the game carries over on defense as well since he is averaging a team-high 1.3 assists per outing.
When you add in the depth provided by guys like Cedrick Alley Jr. (5.9 PPG), Nate Hinton (7.6 PPG) and Fabian White Jr. (6.4 PPG), it becomes even more difficult to deal with the Cougars.
It would be pretty impossible to argue that this game isn’t a matchup of the best two teams in the AAC. The Cougars and Bearcats aren’t just tied for first place in the standings, they are also the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the league in scoring margin, respectively. The primary reason for their sizable margins is defense.
That’s nothing new for the Bearcats. As usual, they are among the best teams in the AAC in most defensive metrics, including defensive efficiency (94.6 points per 100 possessions) and points allowed per game (61.7). UC’s defense is fueled from the inside where they are aggressive in protecting the rim and keeping opponents from findings openings to get into the painted area. The Bearcats are eighth in the country in percentage of opponent points from two-point range (41.3) and tied for 11th in block percentage (9.1), according to Team Rankings. There are still weaknesses to be exploited, however, especially since the Bearcats have shown a complete inability to effectively defend the three-point line, ranking dead last in the AAC in three-point defense (35.9 percent).
Where the Bearcats struggle, the Cougars excel. They are the best three-point defense in the AAC, allowing opponents to shoot a pitiful 26.5 percent from beyond the arc. Despite that, Cougar opponents are scoring 31.3 percent of their points from three. That is probably more a symptom of foes needing to try to shoot their way back into games rather than a deficiency from the Cougars. After all, they are third in the country in opponent true shooting percentage, 11th in defensive efficiency and they can protect the paint themselves, ranking 28th in block rate.
It’s rare to see the Bearcats play a team that plays defense better than them. In this matchup, they may finally be witnessing that reality.
In their last two games, the Cougars have tangled with Temple and UCF, who are among the two best non-Cincinnati teams in the conference. They were able to dispatch of both squads fairly easily, flexing their might as the conference’s best team. But the Bearcats haven’t had a chance to refute that claim until now.
Playing on the road will obviously make it extremely difficult for the Bearcats. Houston’s guard-heavy rotation will create pressure on defense and obviously key in on Jarron Cumberland. You can still expect some super hero efforts from the Bearcats’ top scorer, but the rest of the roster will need to step up to pull off a win. Otherwise, UC will have to wait until the last game of the regular season to get revenge. That means Justin Jenifer needs to continue his three-point renaissance, Cane Broome has to be at his most efficient off the bench and Trevon Scott, Nysier Brooks and Eliel Nsoseme need to push the issue down low where Houston might be a bit more vulnerable. It’s a lot to ask, but not impossible. Unfortunately, with how well Houston is playing right now, its tough to see this one going in a UC’s direction. Houston 70 Cincinnati 65