Probably the second-most compelling game of this year's SEC-Big East Challenge will take place on Saturday at 2:00pm CT at Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena in a game that will feature two 6-0 teams, both of which have multiple wins over major conference opponents. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2, but starts just one hour before the biggest college football game of the season, featuring our own Crimson Tide playing for both an SEC Championship and a bid to play Notre Dame for the national championship. The timing is really unfortunate, because the biggest non-conference basketball game of what is starting to look like a promising season will also be the least-viewed nationally televised Alabama basketball game of all time, at least in the second half--the first half should provide a nice appetizer for Bama fans in the hour leading up to the gridiron clash over on CBS.
Regardless of the number of Alabama fans who will be watching the second half, though, this remains a major test and a major opportunity for the young Bama basketball team--one that may seem far more important come Selection Sunday that it does today. There's no bigger trophy for a postseason resume than a road win over a top-20 team, and that is precisely what Alabama has the opportunity to do on Saturday.
These wins are seen as so valuable, however, precisely because of how difficult they are to pull off. Obviously, home court advantage is, statistically speaking, a very powerful thing in college basketball--far more so than college football--and the Bearcats faithful at Fifth Third Arena are sure to guarantee such an advantage exists on Saturday afternoon. Further, this Cincinnati team has looked downright impressive this season and seems more than worthy of its ranking (currently 17th in the AP poll and 14th in the Pomeroy ratings).
The Bearcats began the season with four straight home blowouts against cupcakes--four of the weakest teams in Division I, in fact. They beat Tennessee-Martin by 23 points, Mississippi Valley State by 42 points, North Carolina A&T by 54 points, and Campbell by 19 points. They got far bigger tests in their two most recent games, beating both Iowa State and Oregon on a neutral court in Las Vegas.
Cincinnati's standout player thus far has been do-everything 6'4" junior wing player Sean Kilpatrick, who leads the team with 21.0 points per game and is second on the team in both rebounds and assists. The second-leading scorer and top assist man is 6'0" senior point guard Cashmere Wright, who averages 16.5 points and 3.0 assists each game, despite playing less than 25 minutes per contest. Kilpatrick and Wright form a deadly combo on the perimeter, far superior to anything Alabama has faced defensively this season.
The team's third-leading scorer also plays on the perimeter, as 6'3" senior guard JaQuon Parker comes in averaging 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds despite playing just 23 minutes per contest. All three of Kilpatrick, Wright, and Parker are prolific three-point shooters, each averaging at least 42% from the arc this season. Needless to say, Alabama's perimeter defense will have to be on point Saturday to slow this group down.
The Bearcats like to play a deep 11-man rotation, and no other player averages over 20 minutes per game, though eight others average at least 10 minutes per game. A pair of junior forwards, 6'8" Justin Jackson and 6'7" Titus Rubles, and a pair of foreign-born centers, 7'1" David Nyarsuk and 6'10" Cheikh Mbodj, lead the way on the inside. Jackson and Rubles are the team's best rebounders, while Nyarsuk and Mbodj are prolific shot-blockers. 6'3" sophomore guard Jeremiah Davis III, 6'5" sophomore wing player Jermaine Sanders, 6'2" guard Ge'Lawn Guyn, and 6'7" wing player Shaquille Thomas round out the rotation.
As a team, Cincinnati has thrived on their high three-point shooting percentage (over 40% as a team, 23rd nationally) and their high offensive rebounding rate (25th nationally). Overall, they have the nation's 37th-most efficient offense. The Bearcats are even better defensively, where they excel most at defending in the paint, where their opponents have the nation's second-lowest shooting percentage, and where the Bearcats have the nation's ninth-highest block rate. Overall, they have the nation's 10th-most efficient defense. Their only glaring weakness this season has been free throw shooting, as they are hitting just 61.5% of their attempts from the stripe.
Alabama will enter this game as the underdog, but not an overwhelming one. Vegas has the Tide +7 as of Friday afternoon, and the Pomeroy ratings give Alabama a 30% chance of victory. Although Cincinnati has some impressive strengths, Alabama does seem to match up fairly well. The Tide has been very strong on the perimeter defensively, which will be the biggest key on that end against the Bearcats, and unlike past seasons, Alabama does not rely nearly as much on scoring in the paint, where the Cincinnati defense is the strongest. Still, Alabama will need to play extremely well in this one to win.
Either way, we'll find out a lot more about where this team is relative to the nation's better teams after this contest. On the good news front, it appears as though starting point guard and leading scorer Trevor Releford will be able to return after missing Tuesday's game against Lamar due to illness. Senior "glue guy" Andrew Steele is still questionable, however, with a groin injury.
We'll see how Alabama stacks up on Saturday against a very good Cincinnati team on the road in a hostile environment. Or at least we'll see the first half. Hope for the best--in both halves.