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Cincinnati Bearcats: Can They Contend In the AAC?


The Cincinnati Bearcats, winners of six of their last eight, are climbing the American Athletic Conference standings behind the league’s top scoring defense. Can their offense improve enough to push them into contention?

The Cincinnati Bearcats (17-7, 8-4 AAC) were making a slow climb up the American Athletic Conference standings. They had won six of their last seven games before falling 75-59 to the equally hot Temple Owls in an all-important conference showdown Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

The Bearcats’ season has been anything but normal. Head Coach Mick Cronin has been away from the program since late December to recover from an arterial dissection in his skull. To fully heal, Cronin must avoid blood pressure spikes which makes it impossible to coach big-time college basketball.

Larry Davis has filled in while Cronin recovers and the Bearcats are inching closer to top four status in the AAC.

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True to their image, Cincinnati is doing it with defense. The stingy Bearcats allow 54.6 points per game – good for sixth in the nation in scoring defense. Their interior defense is especially good. Cincinnati is eighth in the NCAA with 5.9 blocks per game. Octavius Ellis has 56 blocks on the year.

Dig further into Cincinnati’s resume and you will find a Top 20 club in adjusted defensive efficiency. Opponents are only making 49% of their shots at the rim (11th in the country). And overall the Bearcats opponents have an eFG% of 43.3% (21st in the country). Cincinnati held 27 consecutive opponents under 70 points, the longest such stretch in the nation, before giving up 75 at Temple.

With a mix of a physical match-up zone and full court pressure, Cincinnati is grinding its way to conference wins. By any measure, Davis has the Bearcats playing elite level defense.

Offense, on the other hand, has been quite a struggle for the Bearcats. They can go into scoring droughts and lose flow. Cincinnati averages 11.5 assists per game – 261st in the nation. They are 192nd in the country in eFG%. (hoop-math.com)

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  • Perhaps its worst flaw is that Cincinnati is turnover prone. They give the ball away 13.2 times per game – 215th in the nation. In tonight’s game at Temple, Cincy turned it over 17 times. By any measure, the Bearcats are not elite on the offensive end.

    But they do have moments of excellence on that end. In a recent much-needed 62-54 road win over a ranked SMU club, the Bearcats were 7-12 from deep and showed flashes of offensive aptitude.

    The most efficient offenses feature great spacing and that is something Cincinnati struggles with.

    But the Bearcats get great four-out spacing in the below possession against SMU. Cincinnati has four players spaced around the post. And much like Villanova’s four-out action they do not pass and stand. Players cut and fill and it results in a Farad Cobb three.

    Possessions with this sort of spacing need to become more commonplace for the Bearcats to become a conference title contender.

    In the clip below, Cincinnati gets good screening action on both sides of the court. After the ball screen there is a down screen on one side of the floor and a flare screen on the other. The action causes the SMU defender to lose track of Jermaine Sanders and he connects with a layup.

    During the stretch that sealed the victory over SMU in Dallas, the Bearcats went to this Triangle Offense-like set and it resulted in two huge buckets by Cobb and Sanders.

    The set works well because the high post flash empties a side of the floor for two man action. On ball reversal the Bearcats set a backscreen for shuffle action and have good spacing which allows for two-man play on that side of the floor. In the second frame, Cincinnati makes SMU pay dearly for doubling the post.

    Action like this is not as common as Cronin and Davis would like. Too often their offense lacks movement away from the ball and they struggle to find a good shot as the shot clock works against them.

    For the Bearcats to climb their way towards the top of the AAC standings and March Madness, Cincinnati will have to improve its offensive efficiency by bettering their spacing and movement. And the turnovers must be drastically reduced.

    The Bearcats are capable, but sound offensive possessions are too infrequent.

    Next: Solving the Mystery of the Louisville Cardinals

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