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American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Wichita State Shockers

The Bearcats need just one more win to get into Sunday’s final.

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

The journey to the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship will continue on Saturday as the Cincinnati Bearcats take on the Wichita State Shockers in the semifinals at FedExForum.

The Story so Far

The Bearcats faced the SMU Mustangs for the third time this year in Friday’s quarterfinals and yet again didn’t have an easy go of it. Despite only having 15 wins all season, the Mustangs took an eight-point lead in the first half and tied things up three times down the stretch. The Bearcats eventually won out, however. Jarron Cumberland piled up 26 points and eight assists, Justin Jenifer couldn’t miss from three and Trevon Scott produced on the scoreboard and the glass as the No. 2 seed Bearcats moved on to the semifinals.

Before the tournament, the Bearcats got pretty used to winning, even if they did drop their last two matchups of the regular season. They are now 26-6 overall and one more win away from reaching the AAC’s final for the third-straight year.

While its no surprise that the Bearcats are here, its a bit more stunning that the sixth-seed Shockers are. Wichita State may have made the last seven NCAA Tournaments, but Gregg Marshall’s team has not been of the same caliber this season, as the Shockers only cobbled together a middling 10-8 mark in league play and a 17-13 record overall in the regular season. They have boosted that total during the first two rounds of the tournament, topping 11th-seeded East Carolina in the first round and third-seeded Temple in the quarterfinals.

Recapping the Season Series

Wichita State was one of several AAC teams to be swept this season by the Bearcats, who won both meetings by an average of 10.5 points.

In the first meeting, the Bearcats used a big second half powered by a massive helping of free throws to secure a 66-55 win on the road. They outscored the Shockers 25-5 at the foul line and, thanks to 10 apiece from Scott and Nysier Brooks, earned a 36-24 advantage in rebounds. While Scott and Brooks were cleaning up the class, Cumberland (18 points), Jenifer (17 points) and Keith Williams (14) handled most of the scoring, overcoming Markis McDuffie’s 21 points and UC’s own 39.1 percent shooting.

The second meeting was a bit easier for the Bearcats, who went on a 9-0 run in the later stages of the first half to take control for good, as they led by as many 19 points in the final 20 minutes. UC actually lost the rebounding battle this time (51-42). There were a lot of boards to go around since both teams shot very poorly. The Bearcats were just a bit better, limiting the Shockers to 26.8 percent from the field while making 34.5 percent themselves.

Cumberland once again led the way in that second victory, netting 27 points while making six three-pointers. Williams tacked on 15 and Cane Broome contributed 12 off the bench. Wichita State got 14 points from Dexter Dennis but McDuffie struggled, needing 15 shots to produce 13 points.

Players to Watch

Wichita State - Markis McDuffie

Even if he wasn’t at his best last time he faced the Bearcats, McDuffie isn’t the type of player to miss out on putting points on the board. He averaged nearly 18 points per game in the regular season and can make shots from just about anywhere. He certainly displayed that skill on Friday, dropping 34 points on the Owls. If the Bearcats are going to win, they have to stop McDuffie. If the Shockers are going to win, they need the opposite to happen.

Cincinnati - Justin Jenifer

Cumberland closed the SMU win but Jenifer started it. The senior point guard drained five three-pointers on as many attempts, including a 4-for-4 effort in the first 20 minutes that turned an eight-point deficit into a 40-38 advantage at the break. As small as that lead was, the momentum the Bearcats got from Jenifer’s three at the very end of the period certainly carried them forward to victory. It’s unlikely that he will be able to have another perfect shooting night, but if he can be a reliable scorer while Cumberland makes plays all over the court, the Bearcats will be in a good spot.

Prediction Time!

Marshall knows how to make a team win in March. Even if they haven’t been the best Shockers team of his tenure, this year’s squad can still present a real challenge. Just ask Temple. The Bearcats have proven that they can defeat the Shockers, however, and if they can once again push their advantage on the glass and play more effectively on defense than they did on Friday, a ticket to the AAC title game should be attainable. Cincinnati 71 Wichita State 63