When the college basketball season started, defending national champion Louisville was the odds-on favorite in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, with Memphis the most likely challenger. It still might play out that way, but with four league games under our belt, it’s Cincinnati that has jumped out on top, while both the Cardinals and Tigers struggle with problems. Is Cincinnati basketball going to surprise everyone and with the American title?
Let’s begin first by pointing out the phrasing of the question. This is about the regular season championship, and we’re not looking beyond that. There’s plenty of time in late February and early March to talk about who the most viable NCAA Tournament threat, and if Louisville and Memphis can get some of their issues worked out, there is no denying their potential. But for now, let’s just enjoy the conference race and keep the focus there.
Cincinnati is built around a guard-forward combo of Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. They get 18 ppg and 12 ppg respectively, and Jackson also averages eight rebounds per game. The Bearcats have no one else averaging in double figures, though forward Titus Rubles does make a notable contribution rebounding, with his six boards per game.
The lack of depth to the attack is an obvious red flag, and we can add that the three-point shooting isn’t very good. Kilpatrick is more than willing to let it fly behind the arc, but so are all the players on my men’s league rec basketball team, and we all see firsthand that a player’s willingness to shoot a three shouldn’t be confused with his ability to make it consistently. Kilpatrick is at 33 percent, the bare minimum necessary for the shot to be even worthwhile attempting.
So there’s nothing in the lineup that offers a “wow” factor, but let’s review how it translates onto the court. Here’s a brief summary of Cincinnati’s 4-0 start in American play…
vs. SMU (65-57): It wasn’t a great defensive night, as the Mustangs shot 45 percent, while Kilpatrick tossed up bricks. But Cincy got to the free throw line, enjoying a 23-8 scoring edge at the stripe.
@Memphis (69-53): This was a big-time win. The Bearcats hold Memphis to 33 percent shooting, shut down forward Shaq Goodwin, and get good games from Kilpatrick and Jackson.
@Houston (61-60): Note that the Cougars are a likely contender for an NCAA bid, so this is another good road win. The key was taking care of the basketball. The Bearcats won the turnover battle 15-8 and made up for Kilpatrick’s 1-for-8 shooting from three-point range and being outrebounded.
vs. Rutgers (71-51): The Bearcats enjoy a 31-11 scoring advantage on free throws to key this rout.
You have to like the mental toughness Cincinnati shows in tough road spots, but the reliance on free throw scoring against average teams is a red flag. I have to think that both Louisville and Memphis are going to restore order. My own answer to the question of whether Cincinnati basketball can do for their home city what the baseball Reds and football Bengals couldn’t, and overachieve to win a conference title, would be no.