Tomorrow night, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats travel to Memphis, Tennessee to face Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers in a nationally-televised game. The contest tips at 7 PM on ESPN. But which Bearcats team will make the trip down to the FedEx Forum?
Two in the Same.
This season, by my estimation, has been A Tale of Two Teams. On the one hand, there is an anemic and confused Bearcats squad that occupies the hardwood during most first halves (see e.g., UNLV) and away games (see e.g., Iowa or Tulane). On the other, there is a Bearcats team that displays glints of transformational promise while harmoniously executing a high octane offense. The latter seems to only surface inside Fifth Third Arena (see e.g., Tennessee) or after an anemic first half (see e.g., UCF).
The Bearcats are 10-6 this season, 3-1 in The American. By contrast, the Memphis Tigers are 13-3, 2-1 in The American. Memphis is currently ranked 22nd in the AP Poll despite losses to Oregon (away), Georgia (home), and Wichita State (away). Among common opponents, Memphis also beat Tennessee in Knoxville and Tulane by nine at home.
Experience v. Reputation.
The basketball battle off Beale Street is between two vastly different rosters. The team in Blue features six true freshmen (zero juniors and one senior). Of the true freshman, Memphis boasts the 15th, 38th, 52nd, 58th, 106th, and 115th ranked recruits. Memphis is absolutely stacked with young talent and, when the Tigers are clicking, they are difficult to beat. However, Penny Hardaway’s squad has experienced a holiday hangover of sorts with their offensive production slowing considerably since the turn of the year. The Tigers have averaged a miserly 65 points per in their last three games, losing two of those.
The team in Red and Black, as you know, is principally comprised of experienced players. Plenty of those guys have been on the roster for the last six games against Memphis; UC has taken six straight, stretching back to the Tubby Smith era. In their last two outings, the Bearcats played a more promising brand of basketball as they were able to close out games against Tulsa and UCF in the second half (+27 and +17 points, respectively). Likewise, Jarron Cumberland has looked more at ease in the last five games, averaging a hair over 14 points per (shooting 49% from the floor and 45% from three). Trevon Scott, Chris Vogt, and Keith Williams remain steady, with 7’1″ Vogt averaging more points per game this season than all other UC scorers. Like me, I’m sure you imagined that’d be the case before the season started…
Who Has the Keys?
Keys to the game? Thursday night’s outcome will likely turn on whether the Tigers can disrupt the Bearcats as they continue to implement John Brannen’s system in a hostile road environment. The City of Memphis is a great basketball town with knowledgeable and loyal fans. The Tiger-devotees are understandably excited about this young and talented team. They’ll smell blood when the back-to-back conference tournament champs jog out of the Forum tunnel with a less-than-dazzling resume.
Not to be underestimated, however, the Bearcats defense will need to execute brilliantly to slow down 6’9″ Freshman Precious Achiuwa (15 pts., 10 reb.) and 6’7″ Freshman D.J. Jeffries (10.8 pts., 4 reb.). While it can be easy for sportswriters to overstate the importance of a single game, this mid-January matchup could figure prominently in the outcome of The American and, ultimately, UC’s season. At 10-6, this game may well shape the trajectory of the Bearcats confidence going forward. If Brannen’s Bearcats hemorrhage another, they’ll inch closer to .500 and will need to string together a near perfect February/March to avoid a must-win conference tourney scenario.
Tourney Eye Test.
Recall that last year The American was a four bid league in the NCAA Tournament. In 2018, The American received only three bids. With Wichita State (11-1), SMU (12-3), Memphis (13-3), and Houston (12-4) leading the pack in The American right now, it is imperative the Bearcats play with urgency…even desperation…to gain ground and respect Thursday night. Because the game will be nationally-televised (with Jay Bilas on the call), the matchup functions as a critical midseason eye test for folks in the national media.
As you know by now, national media types impact perception and polls, which, in turn, influence the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. If the University of Cincinnati hopes to be among the field of 64 for its tenth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the “glints of transformational promise” team better get off the bus in Memphis, Tennessee. Otherwise, the Bearcats could face the irrelevance that accompanies an uninspiring 10-7 record.
Regardless, the UC-Memphis game is must-see TV for the University of Cincinnati faithful. Hopefully, the Bearcats build on momentum from their two previous victories and sneak back across the Mason-Dixon Line with another victory against a top 25 team from the Volunteer State.