Closing The Deal: #7 Cincinnati Dominating When It Counts

rub skThursday night’s blood pressure-escalating home win over the 22nd-rated UConn Huskies extended Cincinnati’s win streak to fifteen. UC’s last defeat occurred way back on December 14th–the second of back-to-back losses.

When you take a look at the 15-game winning streak, you’ll see quite a few close final scores. Usually, when a team plays a bunch of close games, it’ll be some losses sprinkled in there. After all, shit happens. Guys make incredible shots against you. The ball spins around the rim and pops out. A lucky bounce here or there.

Then again, if you take care of business, you increase your chance for success.

I had some time on my hands tonight (yeah it’s a Friday night–so what?), so I went back and took a look at the play-by-play of the final five minutes of each of the past 15 games. I gathered stats for both the Bearcats (22-2, 11-0 American) and their opponents. And…well…jeeeeeeez. These numbers tell the hell out of the story!

Again, keep in mind, these are stats from the final 5 minutes of the past 15 games–a.k.a. “Winning Time.”

Cincinnati’s Opponents: 31 for 114 (27%) from the field, 4.1 free throw attempts (hitting 62%), 7.27 points.

Cincinnati Bearcats: 39 for 69 (56.5%) from the field, 6.3 free throw attempts (hitting 79%), 10.4 points.

Analysts, players and head coach Mick Cronin talk about “grinding out” these wins. And that is truly what the Bearcats have done. Allowing just 27-percent shooting when it matters most speaks volumes about UC’s defensive strategy, focus on scouting reports, discipline and toughness. On the offensive side, hitting well over half of their shots while getting to the foul line more than the opponent (and knocking down nearly 80% of ‘em!) screams EFFICIENCY…but also focus and mental toughness to work hard to move the ball and get the highest percentage attempt available more often than not.

Two things to take away from these numbers, when comparing this year’s Bearcats to last year’s. 

1) Last season, I wrote a column for quickfixsports.com during a 15-game stretch when UC lost eight games–plummeting the Bearcats from Top 10 to The Bubble. I compiled stats for the final eight minutes of those 15 games. UC shot 33% from the field and allowed opponents to knock down 46% of their shots. Compare that to 56% and 27% this season. Night and day.

2) Much was made of Cincinnati’s inept, inefficient offense last season. In 2012-13, UC ranked 165th in the nation in the stat “offensive efficiency,” which looks at points scored per 100 possessions. And, while the 2013-14 edition of Cronin’s Bearcats may not be an offensive powerhouse, a fresh approach combined with the emergence of a low post threat (Justin Jackson) and fifth-year senior Sean Kilpatrick’s growth at reading defenses have Cincy up to 88th (it was 76th before these last two slugfests with USF and UConn). Not elite by any means, but markedly improved…especially in the final 5 minutes of games.

Cincinnati senior forward Justin Jackson's "Mean Face"

Cincinnati senior forward Justin Jackson’s “Mean Face”

UC will fly down to Dallas to take on Larry Brown’s upward-trending SMU Mustangs Saturday night. The game can be seen on ESPNU at 7:30 EST. SMU (18-5, 7-3 American) appears to have a resume worthy of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament: Home wins over #22 UConn and #24 Memphis (they smoked the Tigers in that game), and no “bad losses.” Sophomore point guard Nic Moore has been playing at a very high level (hitting 45.6% from beyond the arc).

The Bearcats held off the Mustangs 65-57 on New Year’s Day in Cincinnati. SMU has yet to lose at home this season. So, the task will be quite tall to extend the win streak to 16.

Regardless of what happens against SMU, this Cincinnati Bearcat team has figured out the recipe for winning basketball games: Impose your will on both ends of the floor during the final 5 minutes. It’s working…and it’s fun to watch.

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