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Top 25 Preview: No. 21 Cincinnati’s defense is the key once again

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March can be a cruel mistress.

Before Villanova’s Kris Jenkins buried North Carolina as time expired in the national championship game with the shot heard ‘round the world, Cincinnati failed to beat the buzzer against Saint Joseph’s in the tournament’s opening round. The Bearcats’ Octavius Ellis was just a tenth of a second late releasing the ball as he appeared to slam home a game-tying dunk. Instead, Mick Cronin and Co. were left reeling for the second game in a row.

Just one week prior to Ellis’ late dunk, Cincinnati suffered another painful loss in the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) postseason tournament in the form of a four-overtime thriller against Connecticut. Now, the Bearcats will be looking for happier times in 2016-’17.

They will have to find that happiness without the presence of Ellis as the centerpiece of one of the nation’s toughest defenses. Cincinnati ranked 16th last season in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the 6-10 forward who graduated in May was a crucial cog in helping the Bearcats patrol the paint. Cincinnati held opponents to a Division I-best 41.3 percent shooting inside the three-point arc, per KenPom, and allowed them to convert a measly 47.5 percent of their shots at the rim, according to hoop-math. Ellis’ 6.6-percent block rate was a major key.

This season, the Bearcats will have to rely on North Carolina State transfer and former top-60 recruit Kyle Washington to fill the hole left by Ellis. The 6-9 forward showed flashes of rim protecting potential during his two seasons with the Wolfpack, averaging 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes and posting a 6.3-percent block rate during his sophomore campaign. Washington will be joined in the frontcourt by 6-8 Gary Clark, who ranked in the top 500 in block rate last season.

Clark can also provide a scoring punch (he averaged 10.4 points per game as a sophomore) alongside Washington, who averaged 12.2 points per 40 minutes in two seasons at N.C. State, but the bulk of the Bearcats’ offense will likely come from their perimeter players.

Troy Caupain (13 points per game in 2015-’16) is returning for his senior season under head coach Mick Cronin and figures to lead the team in scoring once again. The 6-4 guard made just one-third of his three-pointers last season, but his ability to attack the rim, where he finished 58.6 percent of his chances, and draw fouls at a decent clip makes him a viable creator on the offensive end. Caupain is also a capable distributor, having averaged 5.8 assists per 40 minutes as a junior.

Caupain’s backcourt running mate will likely be 6-3 guard Kevin Johnson, who averaged 21.2 minutes per game for the Bearcats last season. Johnson made just 34.7 percent of his shots as a junior, but will need to improve for Cincinnati to have a functional offense.

Incoming freshman Jarron Cumberland, the No. 55-ranked recruit in the country, may be called upon early for his scoring prowess. The 6-4 guard has the physical size to compete against college opponents right away, and his outside shooting should be coveted on a team that made just 34.8 percent of its three-pointers in 2015-’16.

Cincinnati won’t be a dominant offensive team this season, but teams only have to score more points than their opponent to win, and the Bearcats should have one of the stingiest defenses in the country after allowing just 63.3 points per game last season. That should be enough to make them one of the conference favorites in The American and hopefully finish March with a couple of happier memories than what they endured last spring.

Top 25 Preview: No. 21 Cincinnati’s defense is the key once again

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