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How does Cincinnati's game change against good competition?

A month into the season, UC has played three teams that have any shot at any postseason tournament you've ever heard of. Their numbers are skewed after ripping through the cupcakes, so here's a look at how they've stacked up against decent competition.

The look of the only man to hit a game-winner against UC this year.
The look of the only man to hit a game-winner against UC this year.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is 6-0 against teams in the KenPom top 200. Cincinnati is 6-0 against teams outside of it and a mere 2-1 against their three top 200 opponents. The Bearcats have ripped through their lesser competition like a good team should, posting an average scoring margin of over 34 points per game in those six wins, but their three games against better teams have been a four-point win, a five-point win, and a two-point loss to Butler.

On the year against its schedule as a whole, Cincinnati has played its usual stellar defense. They've had some trouble checking the arc, but they've forced turnovers well and made scoring in the paint as close to impossible as a team can. On the other end, they've scored much better than any Cronin team to this point, shooting well from all over and cleaning up on the glass.

So what has happened against those three top 200 opponents? What has changed in UC's production and planning, and what might that tell us about the Shootout? Let's take a look at all three games and see if there's anything to glean.

#12 (KenPom) Cincinnati 65, #114 (KenPom) Nebraska 61, 11/27/15

This game was tied at 25 at the half, but the second was a lot more open. Nebraska held a two-point lead with 7:23 to go, but UC got ten in a row from Octavius Ellis from that point to take an eight-point lead before salting the thing away at the line.

Troy Caupain led the way in this one, going for 17 on 5-11/4-8/3-4 shooting. UC crushed Nebraska on the glass to the tune of a 42.1% OReb% on their way to 22 second-chance points. Cinci shut down Nebraska star Andrew White but let Tai Webster - kind of a middling perimeter player - go off for 21.

#13 (KenPom) Cincinnati 61, #47 (KenPom) George Washington 56, 11/28/15

Just a day after a win so impressive that UC moved down the Pomeroy rankings, they were back in action against GW. This one was nip and tuck the whole way, but UC got into the last couple of minutes with the lead and executed from the line at crunch time.

This was the kind of defensive effort you expect at the end of a holiday tournament, with Cinci holding George Washington to 10-34 shooting from inside the arc. A GW team that gets to the line at an elite level shot only four free throws in a game where the refs called only 29 total fouls. Cinci's rebounding was just a slight advantage, but the real story was their ability to outscore GW by 8 in the paint.

#34 (KenPom) Butler 78, #16 (KenPom) Cincinnati 76, 12/2/15

Cincinnati held a 66-61 lead with six minutes to play, but a 6-0 Kellen Dunham run put Butler on top. The teams traded baskets, then UC went up late before giving up four straight free throws to go back down three. A three-point play on a stickback by Octavius Ellis tied the game, setting up Roosevelt Jones's dramatic winner.

Butler hit 7 of 19 threes on this game and turned the ball over only 6 times, but for all their execution it was toughness that won the day. They battled UC to a stalemate on the boards, tied them 30-30 in points in the paint, and held the Bearcats to just 7 second-chance points. UC blocked 10 of Butler's shots but the Bulldogs kept going right at them, getting to the line 22 times and ultimately scoring the winning bucket through a crowded lane.

What did we learn?

  • "Free" possessions are hugely important. Every team that has played UC close has avoided turnovers more than the Bearcats are used to and/or held its own on the glass. Cinci feasts off of those extra possessions; keeping them from winning one of those areas is big, and beating them in both is massive.
  • Toughness matters. UC plays bully ball and does its best to drag every game into the mud. That's both pejorative grudging respect. They turn the paint into a battleground, and the teams that play with them are the ones that aren't afraid to go over the top when the call comes.
  • Get to the line. Butler hit 17 free throws in their win over UC. No other opponent of the Bearcats' has even attempted more than that number. Fighting into the teeth of UC's defense puts them on their heels, makes them contend with foul trouble, and gives a team a shot at getting some free points against a fairly stingy defense.
No doubt this is going to be a tough game; it always is. UC has made its bones against a fairly flaccid schedule up until this point in the season, but the three decent teams they have played have laid out a little bit of a road map for Xavier.