Jalen Adams takes the Huskies (10-11) to a hostile environment for a matchup with the Bearcats (20-2), one of the hottest teams in the nation.
Since the destruction of the old Big East, Cincinnati is the closest thing UConn fans have to a conference rival. In recent years, it’s appeared the players feel the same way. Games between the Huskies and the Bearcats have been scrappy dogfights, often not decided until the final minutes. Last year’s contest in the AAC tournament, the four overtime thriller, was without a doubt one of the best games over the entire season. Coming into this one, the Bearcats have been absolutely rolling; they’re winners of thirteen in a row and are undefeated in conference play. UConn, on the other hand, have been arguably the most disappointing team in the country, although they have won three games in a row. But, Cincy is a clear step-up in competition from those last few victories.
UConn will need to rely heavily on Jalen Adams if they hope to stay competitive with the Bearcats. The star guard averages 15 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds a contest. He’ll likely need to top all those numbers for UConn to have a chance. If he turns in a performance more along the lines of what happened when UConn visited SMU (1-10 from the field), then it will be a long forty minutes for the Huskies. Like most years, Cincy plays an aggressive brand of defense that grinds other teams into dust. With the offensive struggles UConn has had this year (66.6 points a game), they’re going to need to find a way to grind out enough points against the tenacious Bearcats. These buckets will not only have to come from Adams, but senior guard Purvis, who seems to single-handedly be capable of either winning or losing a game for the Huskies on any given night. Freshmen Vance Jackson and Christian Vital both average eight points a game, and have been playing with noticeable improvement over the past few games. They will both also need to contribute, because it will be very difficult for the Huskies to score down low against the experienced bigs of Cincy. Kentan Facey has been masterful in his senior year, but he has been contained when facing post players of a higher quality.
In years past, the slow and inefficient offense of the Bearcats was as much a trademark for the team as their stellar defense. However, this year, they’ve exhibited the ability to outscore teams on nights their defense isn’t doing the job (such as against Xavier, an 86-78 victory), and this is what raises the team’s ceiling an incredible amount this season. Jacob Evans (14.3 PPG), Kyle Washington (13.3 PPG) and Troy Caupain (10.7 PPG) are all strong scoring options, and this isn’t even mentioning freshman Jarron Cumberland, who is the reigning AAC player of the week, and comes off the bench. As per the last two seasons, Cincy’s defense has been anchored by forward Gary Clark who at six-foot eight is a menace in the paint and is athletic enough to defend guards. Both he and Washington, another talented interior presence who began his career at NC State, are superb shot-blockers. Guards Justin Jennifer and Kevin Johnson are both threats from beyond the arc. Perhaps Mick Cronin’s greatest weapon is the depth his team possesses. They typically play eight men, but have no issue going all the way to ten, as they have that many players that all play over nine minutes a game (the top eight are all over fifteen minutes a contest). This is what allows them to play so physically, and wear down their opponents.
As most know, UConn has been ravaged by injuries this season. They had three players go down for the season before the calendar hit December, and were left with eight scholarship players. However, due to nagging injuries, they have played with only seven available, and multiple games with just a six-man rotation. Post players Juwan Durham and Steve Enoch have both missed the last three contests, which thankfully, UConn won against lesser competition. However, now, they must play one of the top fifteen teams in the country. While no official report has yet been released, it is unlikely that Steve Enoch suits up, due to the nature of his foot injury (the team is attempting to prevent a full-blown stress fracture). However, earlier in the week, there was optimism that Durham may be able to compete this weekend. Still, he is only a freshman who has spent the entire year attempting to fully move past his knee issues, and has not really been at one hundred percent yet. Either way, the frontcourt must stay out of foul trouble. Besides potentially Durham, Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey are the only true interior players the Huskies will have. If Cincy is able to execute their gameplan and get one or both in foul trouble, UConn’s lack of reliable depth up front could spell doom.
The Cincy point guard has been a key player over the entire course of his four-year career. He’s been a constant thorn in the sides of Husky fans, and has hurt them repeatedly in the past. On Wednesday night, he hit the game-winning jumper with four seconds left to lift the Bearcats over Tulsa. He netted an absurd 37 points in the four overtime thriller with the Huskies a season ago. In addition, there’s history between him and UConn guard Rodney Purvis, as the two both received technical fouls during an altercation back in 2015. Love him or hate him (and UConn fans hate him), Caupain has been an indispensable player for Mick Cronin over four years, and an effective game from him usually means a Bearcat W. He’ll also be tasked with containing UConn point guard Jalen Adams or shooting guard Purvis on defense, and UConn needs not one, but both to show out for a chance at the road win. If Caupain tightens up on the defensive side of the ball and forces one of the two into an inefficient night, it will likely be enough for the Bearcats to toss the Huskies aside.
Cincy is the far more talented team in this game. This is definitely Mick Cronin’s best offensive unit in recent memory, and plays up to the lofty standards of his defensive demands. At home, in the Queen City, the Bearcats are undefeated on the season, winners in all thirteen of games in their own building. Their only losses have been on the road against Butler, and on a neutral court against URI way back in November. UConn, on the other hand, has struggled mightily when traveling, as their record is just two and five on the road. Still, for all of Cincy’s talent, they will have the best player on the floor in Jalen Adams. The team, however short they are, will be coming off a full week of rest. Fatigue should not be an issue, and if Facey and Brimah stay out of foul trouble, UConn’s five best players can play on the same level as Cincy’s five best. If they don’t foul and keep depth a non-factor, this is a game they can steal. With Jalen Adams coming off a full week of rest, they just might pull it off, in a physical, grinder of a game. But that’s just par for the course in the AAC’s biggest rivalry. Connecticut 58, Cincinnati 55.
Stats courtesy of the University of Cincinnati and the University of Connecticut.