Cincinnati Poses Tough Test For Crimson

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Robert F Worley

Connecticut is the only common opponent of Harvard and Cincinnati. Junior wing Wesley Saunders, shown above against the Huskies, will be key in a potential upset.

SPOKANE, Wash.—On Thursday afternoon (2:10 EST, TNT), the Harvard men’s basketball team will take on the Cincinnati Bearcats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In Part I of a two-part preview, staff writer David Freed looks at Cincinnati’s tournament profile and whether its style of play increases the likelihood of a Harvard upset.

Quick Primer on Cincinnati:

Record: 27-6 (15-3 American Athletic Conference)

Best Wins: Pittsburgh, Memphis (twice), UConn, Louisville

Worst Losses: Xavier, SMU

RPI: 13

Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 25

Star Players: Sean Kilpatrick (Sr. Guard) 20.7 ppg, 2.6 apg; Justin Jackson (Sr. Center) 11.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg

Common Opponents:

Harvard and Cincinnati shared just one common opponent all year: the Connecticut Huskies. With Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders out with injury, Harvard was outscored by 10 points in the second half, and fell to the Huskies, 61-56, at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 8. The Bearcats beat the Huskies at home by five in their first meeting behind Kilpatrick’s 26 points and season-high 12 rebounds, but lost a rematch on the road, 51-45, and in the AAC tournament, 58-56.

However, the two teams attacked UConn in very different ways. In its lone win, the Bearcats dominated the Huskies inside behind 15 points from Jackson. The Crimson instead used its spacing to frustrate UConn’s defense, knocking down nine threes to compensate for the lack of a true slasher on the floor in Saunders’ absence. On defense, both units managed to keep Naismith Award finalist Shabazz Napier in check, and UConn did not clear 44 percent shooting in any of the four matchups.

Style of Play:

This year’s Cincinnati squad fits perfectly into the mold created by coach Mick Cronin. The Bearcats are a tenacious defensive team (seventh nationally in defensive efficiency) that gets after opposing ball handlers, forcing turnovers on nearly 23 percent of opponent possessions. Jackson anchors the team inside, leading Cincinnati in both blocks and steals, while Kilpatrick leads a strong group of perimeter wings. Although no starter is taller than 6’8”, the Bearcats do an excellent job of using their length to run opponents off the three-point line and funnel would-be drivers to a waiting Jackson inside.

On offense, Kilpatrick and Jackson are the squad’s two leading scorers, although it might be more accurate to say that the senior guard is Cincinnati’s first, second, and third option. Kilpatrick, who has played nearly 200 more minutes and hoisted 207 more shots than any of his teammates, has scored more points in a Bearcat uniform than anybody but Oscar Robertson. The team goes as he goes, especially with Jackson being foul-prone.

Upset Potential:

Last week, I ranked eight possible Crimson first-round opponents in five categories—three-point shooting frequency, three-point shooting frequency allowed, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and opponent turnover percentage—to judge Harvard’s chances of an upset. Here is where Cincinnati fits in, with its national rank (out of 351) in parentheses:

OREB%: 38.1% (8)

DREB%: 70.8% (165)

Op. TO%: 21.8 (12)

3P Freq.: 31.2% (213)

Op. 3P Freq.: 32.4% (159)

By these metrics, Cincinnati grades out as a very good first-round “Giant.” The Bearcats rebound a large percentage of their own misses, force a lot of turnovers, and run opponents off of the three-point line. Its excellence in the first two categories gives it many extra possessions, helping to make up for its significantly below average offense—and, since extra possessions mean extra chances for superior talent to shine, reducing the chance of being upset. Forcing opponents off the three-point line, a big underdog equalizer, makes the Bearcats an even safer favorite.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati, it could not have asked for a much worse first-round matchup in that respect. On the defensive end, Harvard grabs 74.8 percent of all available rebounds, good for 20th nationally. On offense, Harvard’s 39.0 percent three-point shooting is 39th best in the country, and it turns the ball over on just 15 percent of its plays.

Since the strengths of the squads will go head to head, whichever team can exert its will will have the upper hand. The Bearcats like to use opponent’s turnovers to jumpstart fast breaks, while the Crimson plays more deliberately on offense, often running sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers off multiple pick-and-rolls to find the best shot available.

Another crucial factor could be Harvard’s willingness to take threes against a Bearcat defense designed to take them away. The Crimson shoots threes on a way-below-average 28 percent of possessions, but upped that number to 43 percent against New Mexico in last year’s NCAA Tournament. For Amaker’s squad to pull off the upset once more, it will need to effectively use the triple against a feisty Cincinnati unit.

All Data Courtesy of Teamrankings.com

—Crimson staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

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