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American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. SMU Mustangs

SMU has given the Bearcats trouble all season. Will that continue on Friday?

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago that the Cincinnati Bearcats only barely survived a battle with the SMU Mustangs. Now they must do so again if they hope to advance to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, as the two teams will face off on Friday night in the tournament quarterfinals at FedExForum.

The Story So Far

The Bearcats didn’t have to play in the first round on Thursday. That’s because they earned their spot in the tournament by securing the No. 2 seed. They could very easily have had the top seed for a second-straight season, but they fell flat in the final week of the regular season to finish 25-6 overall and 14-4 in league play.

SMU was not so lucky, at least until yesterday. The Mustangs battled some injury issues and a lack of success down the stretch, losing nine of their last 11 games of the regular season. When the dust settled, they were 14-16 overall and just 6-12 against the conference.

All of that seemed irrelevant on Thursday, however, as the 10th-seeded Mustangs upset the No. 7 Tulsa Golden Hurricane rather easily, securing their chance to tangle with the Bearcats in the quarterfinals.

Recapping the Season Series

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, the Bearcats and the Mustangs have met pretty recently, with their last matchup on Feb. 27. They’ve actually played twice this season, and neither contest was as easy as you might expect for a team with 25 wins playing one that only got its 15th yesterday.

Let’s start with the first matchup. The Bearcats were on a six-game winning streak when that game took place and they extended it to seven when the buzzer sounded. Along the way, the Mustangs made 10 three-pointers and despite trailing by as many as 12 points, they tied the game twice in the final eight minutes before falling short in a 73-68 loss.

The real battle of the game was the scoring showdown between Jarron Cumberland and Jahmal McMurray. Cumberland was not yet the AAC Player of the Year at that point, but he was well on his way as he scored a game-high 24 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists. McMurray countered by draining five triples and tallying 21 total points. Cumberland just got a bit more help, as the Bearcats shot 48.1 percent compared to SMU’s 43.3 percent.

Such efficient shooting was completely absent from the most recent meeting, which took place on Feb. 27. The hosting Mustangs held the Bearcats to a disastrous 26.6 percent shooting night and led 28-22 at halftime. Somehow the Bearcats won despite cold shooting, even from Cumberland, as they dominated the boards (50-35) and outscored the Mustangs 14-2 at the foul line.

Players to Watch

SMU - Jahmal McMurray

McMurray poured in 27 points in the first round against Tulsa, continuing his impressive scoring this season. He has reach 20 points in 12 games and averaged 24 per contest in those two meetings with the Bearcats. His three-point shooting is his primary means of getting points, as he attempts about eight per game and hits on nearly 40 percent.

Cincinnati - Jarron Cumberland

The AAC Player of the Year can do it all. He scores (18.4 PPG), shoots from three (40.4 percent on 5.7 attempts), rebounds (4.4 RPG) and gets open looks for his teammates (3.5 APG). It’s no accident he won that award and its his play that will dictate how far the Bearcats go in this tournament.

Prediction Time!

The postseason is usually a time to rely more heavily on your best players and forget about depth. The Mustangs are certainly adopting that philosophy early in this tournament as only seven players appeared in the first round against Tulsa and six of them played more than 20 minutes. Fatigue from such an effort already started to show in the second half on Thursday, as they shot just 30.8 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes. The Bearcats are already the deeper team and because of the bye they will be the more rested one as well. That should ultimately earn them a spot in the semifinals. Cincinnati 70 SMU 60