WHERE: Fifth Third Arena (Cincinnati, Ohio)
TV/RADIO: ESPN 2/KAAM 770 AM
SERIES: SMU is 2-3 against Cincinnati after splitting the season series last year.
Forget about a tight game against Midwestern State on Dec. 29, SMU came out with their heads on fire against USF in the Mustangs' first American Athletic Conference game of the year, winning 83-49. The Mustangs got 15 points from Ben Moore, 14 points from Keith Frazier, 11 points from Justin Martin and 10 from Yanick Moreira in the rout. A fast start will again be critical as SMU has struggled on the road the past two seasons and even with SMU's win over Michigan, the team has to really focus if it wants to head home with a win. SMU leads the AAC in seven categories: scoring offense (71.5), scoring margin (10.8), FT% (.745), FG% (.479), rebound margin (8.3), assists (15.1) and defensive rebounds (37.5). The Bearcats are one of the better defensive teams so SMU will have to handle the ball with care and not allow points off turnovers from Cincinnati.
Cincinnati leads the conference in scoring defense (55.0) and rebounding defense (29.8). This will be a game of opposites at this point in the season. SMU's defense has seen its ups and downs in rotating to close out on three-point attempts, something that luckily for SMU, Cincinnati hasn't excelled in this season. Cincinnati is really led by their forwards, Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark, who combined to average 9.6 and 8.2 points per game and 7.3 and 7.1 rebounds per game respectively. SMU has the size to matchup with the Bearcats down low, but it will be a battle with Ellis and Clark in the front court.
Cincinnati is also facing SMU without their head coach Mick Cronin, who has been moved to an advisory role due to a non-life-threatening vascular condition. Associate coach Larry Davis, who was the head coach at Furman from 1998 to 2006, will take Cronin's place as the acting head coach. Even though the Bearcats have played their past three games without Cronin, losing a talented coach like Cronin only hurts the Bearcats when preparing for SMU.
Three Players to Watch
F Octavius Ellis
The 6-10, junior forward is the Bearcats' leader in scoring, rebounding and blocks, but can get careless with the ball at times, averaging almost three turnovers a game. Against SMU's physical front court, Ellis will have a tough time shooting 60 percent from the floor like he has this year, but Ellis has the talent to take over down low if SMU doesn't come out and shut him down early.
F Gary Clark
It's a solid 1-2 punch down low for the Bearcats and if SMU's defensive rotation isn't up to par, Ellis will find Clark for easy backdoor dunks and layups. Clark is also a smart player, only turning the ball over 11 times all season, but with SMU's physical defense, the Mustangs will look to buck that trend.
Matchup to Watch
Yanick Moreira vs. Octavius Ellis: Moreira has really come on in the last few games and Ellis is going to be leaned on in a big way by the Bearcats. While Clark is solid for the Bearcats and SMU does have a wealth of depth in the front court, this will come down to the two best big men on the teams to battle it out. Moreira has had two of his better games defensively the past two outings and if he continues that against Ellis, SMU will have a good start to getting another win.
Keys to the Game
A fast start is critical for SMU if the Mustangs are to leave Cincinnati with a win. Anytime you're on the road and facing a talented team like Cincinnati, they'll want to get off to a fast start as well in front of the home crowd. Students will still be out on break, but there could be a good crowd for Cincinnati's big AAC matchup so taking the crowd out of it will be key for SMU so a fast start is needed.