The road to a regular season American Athletic Conference championship will not get any easier for the men in Red& Black. The Cincinnati Bearcats (24-4 overall; 13-2 American) who once had a stranglehold of the AAC regular season championship now need to survive the last three-game stretch after suffering a heartbreaking home loss against rival Louisville last Saturday, who now trails by half a game for the lead in the AAC.
And the last stretch of the season for the Bearcats will start on the road against Shabazz Napier and the Connecticut Huskies (22-6 overall; 10-5 American) who have won five of their last six games since losing against Cincinnati in early February. Needless to say, the Huskies are looking to exact revenge and take down the Bearcats to improve their resume for the NCAA Tournament. Once again, the word "Opportunity" is written on Cincinnati's chest for UConn to take advantage of.
Obviously the most dangerous player to watch for the Huskies is the player who seemingly does everything for the team. Shabazz Napier leads the team in points (17.8), rebounds (5.9), and assists (5.5). In the Huskies' last game at South Florida Wednesday night, it was a rocky and unfortunate start for Napier and Co. For a while it looked like the Huskies were going to take a damaging late-season loss to a team with just three American wins. But Napier finally snapped out of it. Napier led an 18-0 second-half run and finished with 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. That line is emblematic of his senior season: Efficient scoring, tidy passing, high-leverage shot making, and great defense. Which will be a large problem that the Bearcats' defense will have to deal with?
But no matter how Napier plays, if All-America candidate Sean Kilpatrick can score efficiently, the Bearcats' probability of leaving the XL Center with a W is very high. Earlier today, it was announced that Kilpatrick was named one of 15 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Award.
Despite scoring 28 points last game against Louisville, Kilpatrick shot very poorly for the game, going 9 for 26 from the field and 3 for 14 from beyond the arc. That same game, he was the second player in UC's history to surpass 2,000 points scoring for a career. But he was numb to the accomplishment after the loss but he talked about the feat days after.
"I will probably let it sink in after the entire season is over, when my career is done," Kilpatrick said. "But for me it's an honor scoring 2,000 points and being next to Oscar Robertson--although he's still way ahead of me--I was just so focused and zoned in on helping my team win the game. If they wouldn't have announced it on the jumbotron, I wouldn't have known that I hit 2,000."
Kilpatrick still leads the AAC in scoring per game with 20.5 points. But he has been averaging 25.3 points per game over the last eight games, so expect the Bearcats to keep feeding the hot hand.
Meanwhile, coach Mick Cronin who didn't have much to say in the post-game interview following the Louisville loss, talked about Cincinnati maintaining their composure for the home-stretch of the season.
"Well, I'm looking at the conditioning of my players through this stretch of the season and I'm glad that they got a week's rest. Because I'm focusing on March. Your players definitely play better at this stage of the season so we're just looking to manage the conditioning of the team."
When asked about the potential impact that Shabazz Napier can have on his team, he talked about his quickness and scoring ability.
"He is a pure scorer. He can beat you by himself, like he did last game against USF. But the thing is, he has a lot of miles logged on him, so we just have to make sure that this isn't one of those games where he will drop 35 on us."
Earlier today, Mick Cronin was also notified that he is one of 10 finalists for the Henry Iba Award for best coach in college basketball. The Bearcats were picked to finish fourth in the AAC in the preseason and received only one vote in the Associated Press poll. Cronin has guided Cincinnati to a No. 11 national ranking, as high as No. 7 and they still hold first place in the AAC heading into Saturday's game.
"I don't really pay attention to that to be honest," Cronin said. "If anything, there should be a coaching staff award because I have some of the hardest workers on my staff and they're a large part to where we are as a team right now."