On Thursday night (8:50 P.M., TNT), at the Verizon Center, in Washington, D.C., the 11th-seeded Missouri Tigers (23-10) will take on the 6th-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats (25-8) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner of this first-round match-up would then likely face the 3rd-seeded Connecticut Huskies on Saturday night, that is if UConn can get past Bucknell.
Cincinnati finished tied for 6th in the 16-team Big East Conference regular season, with an 11-7 conference record. The Bearcats finished the regular season strong, before getting blown out 89-51, by Notre Dame, in the second round of the Big East Tournament.
This is Cincinnati's first trip to the NCAA Tournament under 5th-year Coach Mick Cronin, who takes great pride in having rebuilt his hometown alma mater's "storied program".
Missouri Head Coach Mike Anderson gave us an early scouting report on the Bearcats.
"We're going to be playing against an outstanding Cincinnati team, that has really played well in Big East play," said Coach Anderson, speaking of the Tigers' first-round match-up. "I know they have a lot of size. They're very athletic. They're a physical basketball team. They can get up and down the floor. Yancy Gates, their big kid, is playing phenomenal for their team. They're a good basketball team."
The "big kid" whom Coach Anderson describes as "playing phenomenal", is 6'9" junior F Yancy Gates (11.8 points/game, 6.8 rebounds/game), who leads the Bearcats is both scoring and rebounding. Gates, who grew up in Cincinnati, is part of Coach Cronin's first recruiting class, and he too, takes great pride in the rebuilding of his hometown school's basketball program. But, the big man is not alone. Cincinnati is a big, talented, athletic team, with plenty of veteran leadership. Following Cincinnati's first-round win over South Florida in the Big East Tournament, Coach Cronin had this to say about his front line.
"We're never going to be beat on the front line," Coach Cronin said.
The Bearcats' starting back court consists of 6'3" junior G Dion Dixon (11.6 points/game, 37% 3-PT FG%), and 6'0" sophomore G Cashmere Wright (8.9 points/game, 3.8 assists/game, 35% 3-PT FG%). These two are a big part of the reason that Cincinnati has a 1.23 assist/turnover ratio, as a team, and that they shoot 34% as a team from behind the 3-PT line.
The Bearcats have several players who shoot the 3-PT shot, including 6'6" senior F Rashad Bishop (8.1 points/game, 3.6 rebounds/game, 36% 3-PT FG%), and 6'4" F G Sean Kilpatrick (9.9 points/game, 3.1 rebounds/game, 37% 3-PT FG%), who plays big minutes for Coach Cronin off of the bench. Bishop and Kilpatrick are dificult match-ups for Missouri, as are all of the small forwards that the Tigers play. Slightly more than one-third of Cincinnati's field goal attempts have come from behind the 3-PT line.
Completing Cincinati's starting line-up is 6'11" senior F Ibrahima Thomas (5.7 points/game, 5.3 rebounds/game), giving the Bearcats a decided size advantage up front in this contest.
Coach Cronin's bench is deep, and athletic. In addition to Kilpatrick, the Bearcats bench features 6'3" senior G Larry Davis (4.7 points/game, 35% 3-PT FG%), 6'7" senior F Darnell Wilks, 6'8" freshmen F Justin Jackson, 7'0" senior C Anthony McClain, 6'2" sophomore G Anthony McBride, and 6'3" sophomore G Jaquon Parker.
Cincinati is an athletic, ruggedly physical team, that gets after it on the defensive end, frequently utilizing full-court pressure. They also really get after it on the boards, and have good offensive balance, both inside and outside. On the season, the Bearcats averaged 69 points/game, and surrendered just 64.8 points/game, which ranks 9th nationally in scoring defense. Missouri Coach Mike Anderson compared the Bearcats to Texas A&M, citing their physical inside play, and their ability to shoot the basketball.
Some have suggested that Cincinnati and Missouri are mirror images of each other. While there are some similarities, there are also plenty of differences. The Bearcats are much bigger, and much more physical up front than Missouri. I think that's the part that Coach Anderson saw that reminded him of Texas A&M, except that Cincinnati is bigger up front than the Aggies. The Bearcats do run a full-court press, and they do try to create easy offense off of turnovers. But, they don't play an up-tempo, fast paced style. They're more of a grind-it-out, pound-it-inside-in-the-half-court style of team. They don't typically score as much as the Tigers usually do, but they play much better defense. They're physically tough, and that probably reminded Coach Anderson of Texas A&M, too.
Missouri staggered to the finish line, losing four out of their last five. Led by First-Team All-Big 12 selection, Marcus Denmon (17.1 points/game, 3.4 rebounds/game, 1.7 assists/game, 1.8 steals/game, 46% 3-PT FG%), in scoring, and as an example of how to play the game of basketball, the Tigers have struggled on the defensive end, and have also experienced internal turmoil that has become evident on the court. On Sunday, junior F Laurence Bowers, one of five Missouri players to average double-figures scoring this season, insisted that after a weekend team meeting, the Tigers have regrouped, and are ready for the Big Dance.
On Sunday, Coach Anderson tried to sound upbeat, and once again identified the Tigers' season-long failures on the defensive end, as an area that needs to be improved.
"We've got to defend, and be consistent with it," said Coach Anderson, addressing the Tigers' formula for advancing in the Tournament. "We've got to be a team that does not give up easy opportunities to a team, even though we're a team that extends our defense. I think we've got to be a little tougher at the rim. Hopefully, our bench will play better."
Tougher. That surely resonates. Coach Anderson sounded as if he's hopeful, but not overly optimistic, that his Tigers will make a run in the Tournament. I think he knows that he's going to need to bring in better defensive players, and that his current players are going to have to learn how to play better defense, heading into next season.
Missouri can win this first-round match-up, but they'll have to do it on the defensive end. An up-tempo, frenetic pace would favor Missouri, provided that pace is established on the defensive end. Just playing fast on the offensive end won't get it done.
Maybe the closed-door airing-out that Bowers alluded to earlier this week will re-focus the team, and pull them together. Justin Safford and Bowers both agreed that the Tigers' practices, since returning home from Kansas City, have been the best, and the most physical, practices of the year.