A week from today, we’ll know just how well the Bearcats did for themselves in the final days of the regular season, but there is a lot hanging in the balance right now. Although their NCAA Tournament spot is pretty much locked in, the Bearcats (25-4, 14-2 American Athletic Conference) have plenty to play for, especially against the resurgent Knights. First, there’s the Beracats’ five-game winning streak, but that’s just the start. Currently tied with Houston for first place in the AAC, the Bearcats have to win on Thursday to keep their league title hopes alive. Capturing such a victory, even against a UCF squad they have already defeated in the last 30 days, will not be easy.
Reintroducing the UCF Knights
Ever since falling short to the Bearcats on Feb. 7, the Knights have been on a tear. They made the biggest statement of their season last weekend when they stunned Houston on the road. The preseason conference favorites have won three-straight games, reached their first AP poll ranking since 2011 and improved to 22-6 overall and 12-4 in league play over the last few weeks. They are rounding into shape at just the right time or, if you’re the Bearcats, the wrong time.
UCF’s current winning streak has been built primarily on defense. That’s nothing new for the Knights, who are a top 50 team nationally in adjusted defense. However, they have really turned up the pressure recently, limiting their last three foes to 35.9 percent shooting combined and an average of 58.3 points per game. Obviously, allowing only 48 points against SMU is a major part of that, but they have succeeded against other opponents as well. That was perfectly clear during their masterpiece against Houston when they limited the Cougars to 32.3 percent from the field in the second half.
During this recent run of success, Tacko Fall has carried the Knights on both ends of the floor. The 7’6” center has always been great at protecting the rim, but he has become an offensive key for the Knights lately while putting in standout work on the boards. He had his first career 20-20 performance against SMU and followed that up with 18 points against USF and a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double against Houston. The Bearcats have a history of frustrating Fall, including during the first meeting (seven points, five blocks, four rebounds). They’ll need to keep that trend going on Thursday.
Recapping the First Meeting
If the first time these two teams plyaed is any indication, this will be another slow defensive struggle. The Knights only scored 18 points in the first half and the game was held to a pace of 60 possessions per 40 minutes. That is distressingly sluggish, but its par for the course for both the Bearcats and the Knights, who rank last and second to last in the conference, respectively, in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.
Other season-long trends that made an appearance were bad free-throw shooting from UCF and strong production on the boards, especially on offense, from the Bearcats. The Knights made only 4-of-7 foul shots, which is what you can expect from a team connecting on only 64.2 percent overall this season. If you’re wondering, that mark ranks second-to-last in the AAC and 333rd in the country. As for UC’s rebounding advantage, it was by a slim margin (28-24), primarily driven by Nysier Brooks and Jarron Cumberland, who had seven apiece. Brooks and Trevon Scott actually had more offensive rebounds than defensive ones and that’s how a game decided by five points featured a 12-6 scoring edge for UC in second chance points.
The real heroes in the win, however, were Justin Jenifer and Keith Williams. The two tied for a team-high 12 points, with each tallying nine after halftime when the Bearcats allowed the Knights to shoot better than 50 percent. Jenifer’s impact was especially critical in the final three minutes, when he scored seven points, including a dagger three-pointer with 24 seconds to play.
What the game lacked, besides a crisp pace and offensive efficiency, was the potential duel between Cumberland and UCF’s B.J. Taylor. They are both top-10 scorers in the AAC, but were limited to 23 points on 7-of-27 shooting combined. Cumberland has had his struggles since then, but recovered with a 26-point outburst last time out against Memphis. Taylor has yet to have such a return to form, averaging 13.3 points on 34.6 percent shooting over the last three games.
As much as we can expect a similar type of game between these two programs as we got the first time, there are some obvious differences to be addressed. The primary one is the setting. The Bearcats overcame an incredibly weak offensive performance thanks to Jenifer, Williams and the backing of a home crowd. There will no such hospitality on Thursday at CFE Arena, where the Knights are 14-2 this season. On the other side, the Bearcats have been good enough on the road (7-3), but when you consider that their last four games have been decided by an average of 3.5 points, any disadvantage could be lethal. Doubting the Bearcats has been a fool’s errand for most of this season, but after seeing UCF defeat Houston last weekend, its tough to see them escaping this one. UCF 61 Cincinnati 60