There are two ways this can go. Either the Cincinnati Bearcats are about to earn a share of the American Athletic Conference championship or lose it. Those are the stakes in Sunday’s regular season finale against the Houston Cougars at Fifth Third Arena.
The Bearcats could have been playing for their second-straight outright conference title, but a 58-55 setback against UCF on Thursday night doused those hopes. Despite that, the Bearcats are still within range of at least a share thanks to a 14-3 league record overall, which they bolstered with a five-game winning streak prior to the UCF loss. Now all they have to do is win a game at home where they are 17-1 this season.
If only it were that easy.
Reintroducing the Houston Cougars
The folks who created the schedule really made life difficult for the Bearcats in the final week of the campaign. UCF was tough enough but now the Bearcats must face off with a Houston team that has only two losses all year. Since they last met the Bearcats and secured a win, the Cougars have remained nearly unbeatable, save for a surprising home loss to UCF last Saturday. Although it might seem strange to say this after what happened Thursday, the Bearcats owe the Knights a debt of gratitude. If they hadn’t defeated Houston last weekend, the Bearcats wouldn’t be in a position to push for a piece of the league title.
The Cougars recovered nicely from that UCF loss, however, running away with a 90-79 triumph against SMU earlier this week. Wins like that have made them the class of the AAC this season, as evidenced by the fact that they have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the league tournament. They are also ranked higher than any team in the league in the AP and Coaches polls, projected for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament by most bracketology experts and the AAC-leader in adjusted efficiency by quite a substantial margin (+21.33), according to KenPom.
It took a balanced effort to earn that win against SMU. Four different players scored in double figures, led by 20 points from Armoni Brooks, who sank six three-pointers in the process. Brooks is usually the second option (13.7 PPG) behind Corey Davis Jr. (16.2 PPG), but the fact that the Cougars can rely on other players to carry the offense on any given day makes them a frightening matchup. Brooks’ three-point shooting also speaks to another Houston strength. The Cougars lead the AAC in three-point attempts, makes and shooting percentage in conference play and they score 36.5 percent of their points from that distance. The Bearcats have made some progress in three-point defense lately, but they are still second-to-last in the conference.
Speaking of defense, Houston excels on that end of the floor as well. They are one of two teams in the league holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting and rank ninth in the entire country in opponent true shooting percentage. With defensive-minded guards like Brooks and Davis, the Cougars are particularly adept at shutting down three-point opportunities. ranking third in the nation in opponent three-point shooting (28.3 percent).
Recapping the First Meeting
The Bearcats don’t need to be reminded that Houston is tough defensively. When these teams first met, they hung right with the Cougars until their offense ran out of gas. The Bearcats did not produce a single points in the final six minutes, which turned a one-point lead into a seven-point loss. They shot just 33.3 percent in the game overall and wasted chances at the foul line (6-of-11). Houston was also the superior team on the interior, winning the rebounding battle (42-36) and outscoring the Bearcats in the paint (32-20).
To the Bearcats’ credit, they definitely gave the Cougars a game. They limited the team to 33.3 percent from three and Brooks to only two points. In addition, Jarron Cumberland poured in a game-high 27 points while Nysier Brooks had 10 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. Unfortunately, while Armoni Brooks got help from teammates like Davis (16 points) and DeJon Jarreau (16 points), the Bearcats weren’t as fortunate. Cane Broome had 10 points off the bench but no other Bearcat besides Cumberland and him had double digit scoring totals. Curiously, the team’s top three-point shooter, Justin Jenifer, didn’t have a single point while playing only 13 minutes. Jenifer has averaged 23.8 minutes per game and shot 40 percent from three since then. Considering the senior guard will be playing his final home game as a Bearcat on Sunday, the odds are that he will get a healthy helping of playing time yet again.
There is a very real path to victory for the Bearcats in this game. Another six-minute scoring drought is unlikely and that might be enough to turn the tide. In addition, the fact that they are playing at home should be a major boost.
Based on lessons from Houston’s only two setbacks, other keys to the game will be getting to the foul line frequently like Temple did and playing solid defense — especially in the second half — in the same manner as UCF. The Bearcats are a top 20 team in adjusted defense and they already limited the Cougars to 65 points in the first meeting, so the defensive part of the equation shouldn’t be too difficult. As for free-throw shooting, the Bearcats are 23rd nationally in foul shots made per 100 possessions, so they have that covered as well.
Even if they execute all of these strategies perfectly, this is still going to be an incredibly difficult game. The Bearcats have won such contests before, and on senior day for Jenifer and Broome, they can do it again. Cincinnati 68 Houston 66