Shake Milton (Photo by Matt Visinsky)

Game preview: SMU vs. Cincinnati

No. 25 SMU (21-4, 11-1 AAC) hosts No. 11 Cincinnati (22-2, 11-0 AAC) Sunday afternoon at Moody Coliseum in a battle for first place in the American Conference.

When: Feb. 12, 2017 at 3 p.m. CT.

Where: Moody Coliseum.

TV/Radio: ESPN/KAAM 770

Series: Cincinnati leads 7-3 (SMU leads 2-1 at Moody Coliseum)

Last meeting: Cincinnati won 66-64 on Jan. 12, 2017 at Fifth Third Arena.

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It’s more of the same for SMU after winning its seventh straight game and 17th in the last 18 games, the latest coming at Temple on Thursday. SMU has held each of those 18 opponents to 66 points or fewer, and 13 of them to 60 or fewer. The Mustangs are allowing 58.3 points per game, third-best in the country. Defense won SMU the game Thursday vs. Temple, holding the Owls to 48 points, 32 percent shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. Many of the turnovers came against SMU’s press. Temple had a lot of trouble scoring inside the 3-point arc, as a lot of teams have against SMU. SMU won despite one of their weaker offensive games (60 points, 38 percent shooting, 16 turnovers). 

Breaking down Cincinnati

The Bearcats have played their usual tough defense this year. They have held seven of their 11 AAC opponents to under 60 points and rank tenth in the country in defensive efficiency (91.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). They’re tough defensively in the paint and allow only 39 percent shooting on 2-pointers. The big reason for Cincinnati’s improvement from last year is a better offense. Cincinnati averages 77 points per game and has a lot more offensive skill than in years past, including the top-10 team that lost to SMU at Moody in 2014. Though not a great 3-point shooting team (35 percent), Cincinnati has a multiple legitimate threats from 3.

Three Cincinnati players to watch

G Jacob Evans: A Jerry West award finalist, the sophomore from New Orleans is averaging 13.4 points per game and shoots 37.6 percent from 3. He’s Cincinnati’s primary 3-point threat. Cincinnati will put him in isolation situations and run a lot of other designed plays for him. He rebounds and defends his position well too.

G Troy Caupain: the senior point guard is Cincinnati’s assist leader (4.6 per game) and averages 10.5 points per game. He relies on his pull-up game and 3-point shooting to score, but isn’t an elite shooter. In Cincinnati’s Feb. 1 comeback win at Tulsa, Caupain scored five points in the last 43 seconds. He made the game-winning jumper with four seconds left. 

F Kyle Washington: a transfer from N.C. State, Washington may be the most offensively skilled big man to play at Cincinnati under Mick Cronin. He’s the team’s leading scorer at 13.8 points per game and shoots 54 percent from the floor. He can score with his back to the basket and facing up. He is 13-for-29 from 3, though Cincinnati doesn’t run many plays for him to shoot 3s. In his last two games, he is 5-for-10 from 3.

Projected Cincinnati starters: G Troy Caupain, G Kevin Johnson, G Jacob Evans, F Gary Clark, F Kyle Washington.

Projected SMU starters: G Shake Milton, G Jarrey Foster, G Sterling Brown, F Ben Moore, F Semi Ojeleye.

Matchup to watch: Kyle Washington vs. SMU “bigs”

Washington scored 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first meeting vs. SMU. SMU had more trouble guarding the perimeter than it did with him, but he’s a tough matchup because of his ability to score in a lot of ways for a big man. SMU’s interior defense has been strong, even without a true big man. Ben Moore has played great defense on a lot of opposing big men. SMU as a whole has done well protecting against drives to the hoop. Washington is one of Cincinnati’s weaker defenders and was briefly benched in a couple games earlier this year. If SMU can score on him, it would help take pressure off the guards against Cincinnati’s tough matchup zone defense.

Keys to the game

In the first matchup, SMU struggled to guard the 3-point shot. Johnson and Caupain, neither of whom shoot higher than 32 percent from 3, combined for six 3s in the first half. That first half was one of the few (maybe the only) extended stretches since the 4-3 start where SMU struggled to play defense. When opponents do score on SMU, it’s often from 3. Cincinnati attacked that early and often in the first meeting.

Dealing with Cincinnati’s tough zone defense is tough for anyone who plays the Bearcats. SMU had a six-minute scoring drought in the first half against Cincinnati in January, but scored 37 points in the second half.  SMU’s smart passing and passing ability through the roster has made them effective against zones. That passing and ability to split zones on drives has creating chances for open cutters to the basket and open 3s. SMU needs to pass well to score against Cincinnati.

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