Only 10 teams in the nation have posted 30 wins this season, and two of them will face off Sunday when UCLA (30-4) , the South region’s No. 3 seed, and Cincinnati (30-5), the No. 6 seed, meet in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins are 3.5-point favorites, according to OddsShark.com, in a matchup defined by a stark contrast in styles.
UCLA, the nation’s highest-scoring team and one of its fastest-paced, will contend with a Cincinnati squad that is one of the nation’s slowest, preferring to grind out wins with its excellent defense.
The Bearcats allow just 60.8 points per game and rank 11th in the country in adjusted defense efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
It’s a style that has worked well for coach Mick Cronin in the American Athletic Conference: The Bearcats are one of just eight teams to have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the last seven seasons.
None of Cronin’s previous squads have advanced past the Sweet 16, but this year’s team has perhaps the best shot. The second 30-win team in Cincinnati history, these Bearcats feature not only the tough defense typical of a Cronin-coached unit but also a capable attack that ranks 33rd in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency.
1. Transition opportunities and pace of play
Cronin cracked plenty of jokes during his Saturday press conference, but the Cincinnati coach was quite serious about one topic.
“If you’re playing transition defense against this UCLA team, you’re going to lose,” Cronin said. “They’re faster than everybody.”
The Bruins do, in fact, play faster than everybody, at least among teams that reached the NCAA Tournament. They average a mere 14.4 seconds per possession on offense; no other tourney team averages under 15 seconds, per KenPom.com.
Led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, who Cronin called “probably the best passer since Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson,” UCLA scores over 20 points per game in transition, according to Synergy Sports.
For Cincinnati to win, that number will likely have to be lower. As good as the Bearcats’ defense is, they won’t survive if they let the Bruins run, Cronin said.
“Our defense is just as bad as everybody else’s if we’re on the run,” Cronin said. “(If) we’re on the run defensively, our scouting report is out the window. They’re going to kill us.”
2. Defensive rebounding
Because the Bruins do not force many turnovers, their transition opportunities come mostly off of defensive rebounds.
“When we rebound, we’re very hard (to stop), because you’ve got to guard us in transition,” senior guard Isaac Hamilton said. “It just ignites our offense.”
The key then, for the Bearcats, will be to limit the Bruins’ defensive rebounds, whether by making shots or grabbing their own misses.
“Our offense is going to be imperative in this game,” Cronin said. “(Being) successful offensively in getting second shots, in scoring the basketball or getting fouled.”
Cincinnati is strong on the offensive boards, ranking 20th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, but Cronin acknowledged the dangers in sending too many men to crash the glass. He pointed to Kent State, which grabbed 15 offensive rebounds but failed to contain UCLA on the break.
“They probably offensive-rebounded a little too much and exposed themselves on the back end,” Cronin said. “But that’s kind of what Kent State does. … Hopefully we can execute and score to where we don’t have to sell out and send everybody to the glass.”
It’s a fine line. Abandon the offensive glass, and the Bruins will have tons of transition opportunities. But send too many to the offensive glass, and those transition opportunities might be especially easy for UCLA to exploit.
Hamilton said he is familiar with the Bearcats’ style of play from having watched his brother, Daniel Hamilton, play in the AAC while at Connecticut.
“They love to defend, they’re tough defenders,” Isaac Hamilton said. “Those guys are tough guys. They want to bully, they want to play smash-mouth basketball.”
Isaac Hamilton said Cincinnati was like a mixture between Michigan and Kent State. Other players agreed that the Bearcats were similar to the Golden Flashes, but with the added advantage of some extra size.
“They’re a tougher Kent State team, they’re bigger and much stronger,” sophomore guard Aaron Holiday said. “They rebound the ball well on the offensive end so we have to box out and play defense to win.”
On offense, the Bearcats like to throw the ball down low, generating over 12 percent of their offense from post-ups, per Synergy Sports. Forwards Kyle Washington and Gary Clark each average over a point per possession on post-ups.
Clark boasts the team’s best net rating, but Washington is the go-to option whenever he’s on the floor, taking around 28 percent of the Bearcats’ shots while out there.
Those two are complemented by solid options on the wings. Most notably, 6-foot-6 guard Jacob Evans drills 41.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, and point guard Troy Caupain is the program’s leader in career assists.
4. Bryce Alford
Senior guard Bryce Alford connected on two of his four 3-point attempts Friday night, but finished the night with no other points to his name.
It marked the third straight game in which he’s scored fewer than 10 points, his longest stretch without hitting double digits since his freshman year.
“I don’t really have an explanation,” Alford said. “I think I’ve been getting the same shots that I’ve been getting all year.”
His struggles haven’t stopped him from being a dangerous offensive weapon.
Opponents still devote boatloads of attention to keeping Alford, who led the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting this year and broke the UCLA record for career triples, from getting hot, and Cincinnati will do the same.
“I’m nervous about that because I’m a big believer in the law of averages,” Cronin said of Alford’s shooting slump. “If a guy is a great shooter and he’s been struggling, it’s going to go the other way.”
Cronin emphasized the fact that limiting UCLA’s transition opportunities will also be key to Cincinnati’s plan in marking Alford.
“If you’re sprinting back to the paint to stop a team in transition, it’s going to be hard to find him at the 3-point line,” Cronin said. “If you let him get his feet set, he can carve you up, change the game. The 3 is such a game-changer – a guy like that hits five, six or seven on you, it’s going to be hard to win the game.”
UCLA injury updates
Coach Steve Alford said Ball will be “close to 100 percent” on Sunday after bruising his hip late in the first half of Friday’s game against Kent State. He also said he expects freshman forward Ike Anigbogu to play after missing Friday’s game with a sprained left foot.
Interestingly enough, the only other Cincinnati team to win 30 games – the 2001-02 squad – lost to UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Dan Gadzuric led the Bruins with 26 points and 13 rebounds, while Matt Barnes added 17 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in UCLA’s 105-101 double-overtime victory.