Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati are #17, #18, and #19 in the AP Top 25 poll, and four of USF's next five games will be against those teams. It starts today, with Cincinnati at the Sun Dome.
The Bearcats are 16-2, 5-0 in the AAC. Their only losses were to NCAA-caliber teams Xavier and New Mexico, over a month ago. Those two games could have derailed Cincinnati's season; after the loss to the hated Musketeers, a tense post-game meeting got the Bearcats re-focused. Their next game was against a strong Pittsburgh team in New York, and Cincinnati delivered their best defensive effort of the season in a 44-43 win. The Bearcats haven't lost a game since. Coach Mick Cronin calls it their most important win of the season:
That was monstrous for our mental state. If we had lost that game, I was going to go in and tell the guys how proud I was of them, that if we prepare like that and we compete like that, we’re going to have a great year. But that’s a hard sell if they had been sitting in the locker room in the Garden despondent over a loss because this team cares so much. You talk about watershed moments for a team. That was it. No question.
Cincinnati is led by shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick, the conference's leading scorer at 18.6 points per game. UC seems to have an assembly line of skilled, burly forwards, and this year's team includes seniors Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. Both worked in the off-season to become better scorers in the paint, and their effort has paid off. Jackson averages 11.7 points per game (up from 3.8 ppg last season) and is the AAC's best offensive rebounder, pulling 3.6 per game. USF has had trouble with that kind of player recently; Houston's TaShawn Thomas and SMU's Markus Kennedy both had big games against the Bulls.
When Cashmere Wright graduated after last season, the position fell to Ge'Lawn Guin. Guin starts at point guard , but only averages 17 minutes per game. Freshman Troy Caupain plays more minutes, and is more of a scoring threat. As a 6-3 high schooler, Caupain averaged 15.3 rebounds per game, which makes him a natural fit for the Bearcats.
Let's look at the Four Factors, the key stats that have been found to decide basketball games. This could be ugly:
Are there any positives? Cincinnati is not a deep team. They are down to nine scholarship players. (Jermaine Lawrence has missed the last two games due to turf toe, and would be the tenth if he can play.) Other than South Sudanese seven-footer David Nyarsuk, they're not a tall team, either. Their offense can run hot and cold at times, as you'd expect from a nine-man team where one guy (Kilpatrick) does a big chunk of the shooting. And USF ought to be motivated after that dreadful performance against SMU.
But that offensive rebounding line sticks out like a sore thumb. When I think of past Cincinnati-USF games, I always think of Cincy coming up with a second-chance basket every time USF threatens to make it a game. And this year's Bulls team doesn't seem to have the skill set to prevent that eventuality.