Much like any video game saves its toughest boss battle for the very end, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ schedule was always built to end with a giant difficulty spike. That’s why this week, the final one of the regular season, will serve as their Liquid Ocelot, or whichever video game boss you prefer. In the next seven days, the Bearcats will visit the UCF Knights and host the Houston Cougars, with a chance at winning the American Athletic Conference title hanging in the balance.
That chance was made all the more real on Saturday when the Knights handed the Cougars just their second loss of the season. With that one victory, and the Bearcats’ own win against Memphis, UC was boosted into a tie with Houston for first place in the league standings. This is familiar territory for the Bearcats, who are the defending regular season and tournament champions in the AAC. In the final Sunday of last season, the Bearcats faced a Wichita State team that trailed them by just a game in the standings, but thanks to a 62-61 win, they didn’t have to share the crown. They still have a shot at that type of outright title, although its unlikely since the Cougars would have to lose to SMU on Thursday and then again on Sunday. Houston has yet to lose consecutive games this season and they will be at home on Thursday, so its not a realistic hope, but its not impossible either.
The Bearcats can’t afford to dwell too much on what the Cougars do on Thursday because they will be in action themselves. UCF was considered the favorite to win the conference in the preseason and the Knights are playing like it right now. They have won six of their last seven games, with no win more impressive than their road triumph against Houston this past weekend. However, their one loss in that seven-game stretch was against the very Bearcats they will host on Thursday. That win was far from an easy one for UC, so having the location shift to UCF’s CFE Arena could mean the result will flip as well.
A big reason for that is because the Bearcats and Knights are so similar. UCF is ranked 36th in the country in adjusted efficiency, while UC is a few steps ahead at 31st. The Bearcats are the better defensive team based on defensive efficiency (93.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), but the Knights counter with the better offense (112.4 points per 100 possessions). Neither team was particularly effective on offense in the first meeting in February, especially in the first half, so this has all the makings of a defensive showcase that will be decided in the last few minutes.
If the Bearcats can survive that contest, they will get their shot at revenge against Houston. The Cougars are one of two teams in the league to defeat the Bearcats this season. Ever since that 65-58 setback in Houston on Feb. 10, this matchup has been highlighted on the calendar. To this point, both teams have taken care of business to make it a winner take all finale. The Cougars are still the heavy favorites to win the conference, what with their league-best marks in offensive and defensive efficiency, but beating the Bearcats in Fifth Third Arena, where next Sunday’s contest will be held, is an extremely difficult task. The Bearcats are 17-1 at home this season and have not lost more than one game when hosting since the 2015-16 season.
We have already entered March and the intensity will get turned up to 11 this week. The Bearcats control their own destiny, and if they can win out, they will take home their second-straight regular season AAC crown. Hopefully they have saved up all their health potions because to accomplish that goal, they have to go through the toughest stretch of the entire season.