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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Memphis Tigers

In the penultimate home game of the season, the Bearcats will host a Memphis team that has been exceptional on offense, especially during the last few games.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

For their first game of March, the Cincinnati Bearcats will host the Memphis Tigers in an American Athletic Conference rematch at Fifth Third Arena on Saturday night.

This will be the second-to-last home game for the Bearcats this season, with the final one taking place next Sunday against the Houston Cougars. Obviously that game will be a critically important one, but the Bearcats have to take care of business on Saturday before they can even begin to think about that matchup (as well as Thursday’s tilt with the UCF Knights). After they just barely got past the SMU Mustangs on Wednesday, the goal should be to shake the rust off the offense. The Bearcats shot a season-low 26.6 percent from the field against the Mustangs but their offensive rebounding and defense carried them to a 52-49 win. That extended their current winning streak to four games.

With that winning streak in hand, the Bearcats have improved to 24-4 overall. They are also two games up on UCF for second place in the AAC (13-2 compared with 11-5). A win on Saturday would all but guarantee that they will be no lower than the No. 2 seed in the AAC tourney. To get that critical victory, they’ll have to go through the Tigers once more.

Reintroducing the Memphis Tigers

Since they lost to the Bearcats on Feb. 7, the Tigers have been playing very well. They have won five of their last six games, including the last three-straight. While they are still far from the NCAA Tournament conversation, at 18-11 and 10-6 in league play, they could sneak into it by winning out the regular season and making a run in the league tournament.

If the Tigers hope to do that, they’ll need to keep doing what they’ve been doing recently. What does that mean exactly? It starts with Jeremiah Martin. The senior guard has been putting on a James Harden style performance the last few weeks. In the last five games he is averaging 33.2 points on 18.6 shots per game. He is scorching the nets from beyond the arc (47.2 percent on 7.2 attempts) and when he decides not to score, he’s getting his teammates involved, averaging 4.6 assists during this five-game stretch. That has allowed Kyvon Davenport (13.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG), Tyler Harris (11.1 PPG) and Kareem Brewton Jr. (9.0 PPG) to get open looks but not carry so much offensive responsibility.

Martin’s offensive dominance has been at the core of a offensive rally from the Tigers. Already a team that pushes the tempo and scores at an incredible level, Memphis has scored 500 points combined in their last six games (83.3 per game). If you take out their 79-72 loss to UCF on July 16, the Tigers are shooting 47.4 percent from the field since playing the Bearcats. Getting out on the break has really helped, with an average of 20 points scored off turnovers during those five wins, which is clearly aided by the team’s solid ball movement during that span (16 assists per game).

Recapping the First Meeting

Based on how the Tigers have been playing, if the Bearcats hope to defeat them, they can’t afford another slow offensive start. Even if that has been a bit of a calling card for this team, at some point the other shoe is going to drop. They didn’t have as glacially slow a start as they did on Wednesday against Memphis, but they still trailed 35-29 at halftime after shooting just 32.1 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes. If it weren’t for Justin Jenifer’s three-point efficiency, things could have gotten much further out of hand.

What the Bearcats can hang their hats on is how the imposed their defensive will. Only three teams in the country play at a faster tempo than Memphis (74.8 possessions per 40 minutes), but against the Bearcats, that pace slowed considerably, netting out at a metric of 64.6, according to Sports-Reference.

Jarron Cumberland scored 17 points in that win, but he has struggled to get close to that level of production of late. He is scoring 10.3 points per game on 28.6 percent shooting over the last three outings. Trevon Scott, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in the first meeting with Memphis, Jenifer, Keith Williams and Nysier Brooks have all filled the gaps, as have several players off the bench, but the Bearcats need Cumberland to be the guy who was piling up the points earlier in the season to win by more comfortable margins.

Prediction Time!

If Cumberland can recapture the magic, then this could be an incredible one-on-one scoring matchup between him and Martin. The Bearcats already proved that they can slow the Tigers down, but even in that previous win, Martin still tallied 26 points. Much of UC’s defensive success has come from making sure the secondary scorers of their opponents don’t give the lead guy much support. It’s difficult to argue with the results since they are 21st in the country in adjusted defense by KenPom’s calculations.

One major advantage that the Bearcats will have in this game, other than an already established blueprint on how to defeat the Tigers, is the fact that they are playing at home. They may not be impossible to take down at Fifth Third Arena, but at 16-1 this season, their home record speaks for itself.

Time and time again, the Bearcats have played poorly for long stretches of games only to capture victories. Memphis might be a team that can capitalize on that trend, but I wouldn't bet on it. Cincinnati 75 Memphis 70