Let me set the scene: The Bearcats, slated for a "rebuilding" year, had propelled themselves to 20-3 thanks to some heart-stopping road wins against teams they should have beaten easily. Tough victories count all the same, but they certainly qualified as what some may call unnecessarily anxiety-inducing. They'd knocked off a spunky Tiger team in Memphis and headed to Houston to face the nation's #12 team. The Cougars, by the way, were 22-1, boasting the country's longest home winning streak—unbeaten in nearly two calendar years.
The Coogs took advantage of home court and out-shot the Bearcats, 49% to 33%. They out-rebound the Bearcats, 42 to 36. The officials, never quite prepared to call an AAC game, skewed in Cougar favor.
Only Jarron Cumberland scored more than 10 points for Cincinnati. Justin Jenifer recorded as many turnovers as he did assists. Three UC starters combined for ten points, and the Bearcats went scoreless in the game's final six minutes.
Disaster. The Cougars staved off the upset to win by... seven.
Look, the game wasn't incredible if you're a Cincinnati fan, especially one that watched the final six minutes, in which UC couldn't manage a single point after finding themselves in the lead.
But consider the broader picture. Houston is having the type of season Cincinnati had a year ago. The Bearcats, on the other hand, were not supposed to be a top-25 team this year. They lost first-round draft pick Jacob Evans to the NBA. They lost AAC Player of the Year Gary Clark to the NBA. They lost Kyle Washington, a spark in the locker room and on the court, to Europe. UC is a team many had pegged for the bubble in October. Following the opening night clunker against the Buckeyes, fans and critics alike were fair to wonder if even the mild expectations were too generous.
We've reached February, and the Bearcats are in the rankings and narrowly missed stealing a win on the road against a team on the fringes of the AP Poll's top ten.
I'm not asking you to be happy with a loss, but to look at the broader picture. We hit the panic button after Opening Night. We hit the panic button again after a near-disaster against UNLV. Again, in a disappointing road performance against Mississippi State, we hit the panic button. The Bearcats went on the road a month ago and got beat by East Freaking Carolina. Guess what? We all hit the panic button. Yet, here the Bearcats stand on February 10, twenty wins and four losses. They fell just short of finding a way to steal a road victory once more, not against Wichita State, Temple, or Memphis, but the #12 Houston Cougars.
Don’t hit the panic button now. In fact, it's probably time to lock the panic button away for the season because Mick Cronin and his Bearcats are proving we can't be trusted with it.
Jarron Cumberland cat-scratched and C Paw'd his way to 27 points without consistent help in the second half, showing once again why he's the best player in the conference. Cincinnati got the short end of the stick from the officials at seemingly every turn but managed to ride their superstar until the wheels finally fell off at the hands of a worthy opponent.
So once more I ask you, let me set the scene: The Rebuilding Bearcats are 20-4, likely favored to win their final seven games. It could be, and probably should be, much worse. Look across town for proof. I'm not asking you to be happy with a loss, but to consider that broader picture. The Bearcats have surprised everyone by painting a pretty good one.
Houston is, uh, excellent on the defensive end. They're #11 nationally in adjusted defense, per KenPom. They allow just 26.5% from outside (third in the country), which makes Cincinnati's 8-for-21 mark (38.1%) pretty impressive. It also helps explain some of the troubling offensive numbers UC had. Jenifer went scoreless (!), and Trevon Scott's only field goal came from deep. Keith Williams and Cane Broome were easily the most consistent secondary options, and they combined to shoot a rugged 8-for-22 from the field. It wasn't a pretty afternoon for the offense, but I think they've earned enough trust to avoid retribution after a tough road outing against a great defensive team.
Williams was terrific to close the first half after Jarron Cumberland picked up a second foul and earned an early seat on the bench. His four steals jump off the box score, but eight points on 4-for-13 shooting don't do justice to the work Keith did to keep Cincinnati within a point at the break. None of us can say enough about how crucial he's been to this year's team, and that bears repeating, even after a tough game.
The bench didn't have a turnover, which is incredible when you consider this year's second unit is a collection of guys that struggle to hold onto the ball. I've glossed over Cane Broome here, but he was the second best player in black. He finished with ten points, three rebounds, two assists, and a steal. He also shot 4-for-9 on an afternoon where nobody could get them to fall.
So much of what Houston does is an aerial assault, so everyone was worried about how Cincinnati's porous perimeter defense would fare against the Cougars. It was fine. Houston shot 7-for-21 (33%), and I thought UC did an excellent job limiting both makes and attempts.
The unexpected flip side of the solid perimeter defense was Houston missing on so many deep threes that it noticeably cut into Cincinnati's ability to clean the defensive glass. Even when the Bearcats had men in position, they weren't getting the rebounds they should've, as balls caromed off the rim to the three-point line and into the waiting hands of Cougars. Officials aside, that may have been the most frustrating aspect of Sunday's game.
It's unbearable we have to wait a week for the next one, but at least the opponent is a struggling Wichita team who will have their work cut out for them in Clifton. Cincinnati is poised to finish strong, but it'll be nice to get back on track with the easiest remaining contest rather than another challenge. See you at The Shoe.