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American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. UCF Knights

The Bearcats can advance to the title game with just one more win.

USA World Baseball Classic team practice Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

A spot in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship will be on the line today, as the Cincinnati Bearcats face the UCF Knights in the tournament semifinals in Clearwater, Florida.

Since this is a double-elimination tournament, these semifinals could be more than just a single game. The Bearcats will be best served by winning their first game, set to take place this afternoon. With such a win, they will eliminate the Knights and move on to Sunday’s final round. However, if they fall short this afternoon, they will play the Knights once more tonight, with the winner advancing and the loser going home. Here’s what you need to know before everything gets started.

The Story So Far

Now that the regular season champion East Carolina Pirates have been eliminated from the tournament, the No. 2 Bearcats stand alone as the team with the highest seed among the four remaining. They have played up to that kind of standing so far this week, with wins against Memphis and Tulane to get them to Saturday’s semifinals. Finding success in the batter’s box has gone a long way toward accomplishing that goal, but the Bearcats have also gotten some solid pitching efforts, especially during the final innings on Thursday against Tulane.

Now 28-29 overall and with just one win standing between them and Sunday’s title game, the Bearcats, who went 13-11 in league play this season and have won five of their last seven overall, are trying to match a run they haven’t managed since 2008.

Jordan Spicer threw a complete game, allowing only two runs and striking out six to lead the Knights to a 6-2 win over Tulane on Friday night. The Knights have been playing on the razor’s edge in their last two outings. After they lost in the first round, they have secured victories in back-to-back games to set up today’s semifinal matchup with the Bearcats.

The Knights have already won 36 games this season, but they struggled a bit in conference action, going 11-13, which meant they had to settle for the No. 6 seed in this tournament. Although Spicer was the star on Friday, the Knights have been a team that relies on a powerful and patient lineup. They rank third in the conference in home runs (56) and slugging percentage (.425), with Tyler Osik (.330/.410/.550, 10 home runs), Ray Alejo (.298/.361/.500, 30 extra base hits) and Dallas Beaver (.317/.456/.551, 12 home runs) some of the their most effective hitters. Then there’s first-team all-conference second baseman Matthew Mika, who is a threat both in the batter’s box (.327/.457/.514) and on the base paths (31 stolen bases).

Recapping the Season Series

When these teams met for a three-game set back in mid-April, the Bearcats didn’t appear ready to compete, losing 15-0 in the first game of the weekend. However, they rallied from there and won back-to-back games against the Knights, including a dramatic triumph in the finale courtesy of outfielder Joey Wiemer.

During that weekend, shortstop Joey Bellini was the only UC player to record a hit in every game, as he went 6-for-10 with two RBI and three runs scored. Bellini has been a mainstay in the second spot in UC’s order all season and for good reason, as he leads the team in batting average (.297) and ranks fourth in on-base percentage (.377).

Players to Watch

Cincinnati - A.J. Bumpass, OF

If the Bearcats are going to continue their march through this tournament, their recent hitting improvements need to be maintained. Bumpass has been at the forefront of that offensive renaissance, reaching base in eight of his nine plate appearances while either scoring or driving in seven of the 19 runs the Bearcats have produced to this point in the tourney.

UCF - Matthew Mika, 2B

Mika sets the tone for the Knights as their leadoff hitter. He had a strong showing on Friday, going 2-for-3 with a home run, and his ability to wait for the pitch he wants to hit will provide a real challenge for UC pitchers.

Prediction Time!

As noted earlier, the Bearcats can make this simple for themselves if they just win right away. That is easier said than done, but they do have the luxury of facing a UCF team that has played three games in the last four days. The season series also provides evidence that they have can defeat the Knights, especially if they get multiple chances. Cincinnati in two games.