Tomorrow afternoon, Bob Huggins' old team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, will bring their 15-4 record to Morgantown to battle the Mountaineers for second place in the Big East conference. Cincy has been red hot as of late, winning 10 of their last 11 games, including wins over UConn, Georgetown, Pitt and Oklahoma. Especially since Huggins has returned to WVU, games with Cincinnati have been close, physical games where the teams are evenly matched and luck and breaks play a big role in determining the outcome. We sat down with Matt Opper at the UC Blog Down the Drive to discuss the matchup.
Country Roads: UC got out of the gate slow at 5-3, with losses to Presbyterian and Marshall as well as the infamous brawl game against Xavier. Since then, the Bearcats have been red hot, winning 9 of 10. What has been the secret to the turnaround, especially in the wake of that brawl game?
Down the Drive: The secret isn't really that much of a secret. One of the problems in the first part of the year was that the chemistry was a bit off. One of the reasons why the Bearcats exceeded expectations in 2010-11 was the collective hunger from the team. The entire team was so desperate to bring the program back to the NCAA and it was the overwhelming desire for the singular goal that was so crucial to the success. This year the team wasn't anywhere near as cohesive early in the year. But after the fight that has turned around completely. It has really galvanized this group into a team rather than a collection of individuals. Its terrible that it took such a decidedly negative event for that to happen. But now that its happened I can't imagine that the Bearcats having this kind of run if the fight didn't happen. It has been that big of a variable in this season. By far the biggest.
CR: It's no secret that as Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant, and to a lesser extent Deniz Kilicli go, so goes WVU. On the other hand, UC is far more balanced as four Bearcats currently average in double figures, with Jaquon Parker not far behind at 9.3. That being the case, which player is most important to Cincy's success and why?
DTD: Two weeks ago I would have said Cashmere Wright in a heartbeat. It wouldn't have even been a question. But the last four games haven't been great for Cash he has shot 27 per cent from the field the last four games and has seen his assist/turnover margin fall to basically 1 over that stretch. So I am starting to think that the key to the whole thing is Parker. The flexibility that he brings to this team is worth its weight in gold. He is only 6'3" 210 but he has held his own against power forwards on the defensive end. But on the offensive end he is a complete mismatch when teams try to go big against the Bearcats four guard look. He isn't a complete stopper on defense but the net advantage he brings the team against Forwards is massive.
CR: Since Bob Huggins has returned to his alma mater, WVU-UC games have been extremely physical, with an emphasis on defense and rebounding. It's strength against strength, and whichever team can best impose its will on the other will likely come out ahead on the scoreboard. Is there any reason to expect anything different this year?
DTD: I say with this Bearcats team expect the unexpected. They have won so many different games in different ways its uncanny. Sometimes it seems like they are purposely looking for ways to win games in strange ways. The real key for the Bearcats lately has been turnover margin which isn't usually a relevant statistic in Basketball. But UC is doing its best to bring it to the fore. Consider this in the last 7 games Cincy has turned the ball over an average of 6.8 times while forcing 15.8 turnovers. Unlike in years past where rebounding, offensive rebounding in particular, have defined these games I don't think it will be as big of an impact.
CR: Along that same line, what's your prediction for this one? WVU plays well at home, but I'm still having nightmares of a 62-39 beatdown by Cincinnati in 2008. Can the Mountaineers hold serve in what looks to be a pivotal game as these teams jockey for standing behind the #1 Syracuse Orange?
DTD: I think the Mountaineers will actually win this in a close one. In full disclosure that is a reverse jinx. It worked exceptionally well for me last time.