— Alex Frank (@alexcincy) December 15, 2018
Alex Frank | Sports Director
The Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team has a promising opportunity Saturday to boost their NCAA Tournament résumé as they travel to take on the No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville, Mississippi, a game that will get underway at 8:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Cincinnati will enter Saturday’s matchup riding a nine-game winning streak following a season-opening loss against Ohio State.
Not only is this a tournament résumé-boosting opportunity for the Bearcats, but it’s also a chance to show why they belong in the AP Top 25 in a game junior forward Trevon Scott thinks is Cincinnati’s biggest nonconference game of the season.
“We’ll get as much recognition as we need if we go handle business down there,” Scott said.
Scouting Mississippi State
Led by fourth-year head coach Ben Howland, who took UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008 as part of his 21+ years as a head coach, the Bulldogs are off to a sizzling 8-1 start with their offense averaging 78.2 points per game, while shooting an impressive near 47 percent including 36 percent behind the three-point line.
“[Howland’s] got veteran guys that have played together and have figured out how to win games,” Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin said at his press conference Wednesday. “They do what they need to. They can kill you in transition. They run offense when they need to. They’re not super good team, but I would think starting five-wise they’re right there with most teams in the country.”
Cronin said that the Bulldogs are about the same in terms of depth as they were last year when the Bearcats played them, a 65-50 win.
But Mississippi State does currently have five players averaging 10 or more points a game, including senior guard Lamar Peters.
Peters averaged 27.5 points per game last week and hit a career-high eight three-point shots in both of the Bulldogs wins, en route being named SEC Co-Player of the Week.
It’s not just Peters, though, that’s contributing to the Bulldogs offense, as he’s not even their leading scorer.
That is currently senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, at 16.8 points per game.
“They’ve got a lot of guys,” Cronin said. “They really put a lot of pressure on your defense because they’ve got guys that can do everything- shoot threes, drive to the basket. They literally play with two guards at all times. They present a lot of problems for us.”
Nasty Nnati Defense
The defensive tenacity that Mick Cronin-coached teams consistently bring was on full display last week Saturday in the Bearcats 62-47 win over Xavier in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.
Saturday’s game will require that kind of performance again if the Bearcats are going to get a win in Starkville, a place where Cronin said he doesn’t know how many teams are going to go into and win this season.
“Their whole team, the last five they’re shooting 43 percent from three,” Cronin said. “We haven’t seen that since Notre Dame in the BIG EAST.”
Difference a year can make
The Bearcats dominated the Bulldogs from start to finish last year in a 65-50 win, a game played at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena.
Cincinnati’s defense made life miserable for Peters, who didn’t make a single shot on 11 total attempts including seven from three.
“In fairness to Lamar Peters, he just didn’t have a good game,” Cronin said. “We didn’t give him lay-ups, but he’s making shots this year that he didn’t make last year. They’re just all older and better players.”
Cincinnati’s defense limited to Mississippi State to 6-21 shooting from three overall.
Offensively for the Bearcats, Jacob Evans III scored a game and season-high 24 points in that game while Gary Clark just missed a double-double with nine points and 13 rebounds.
But Evans and Clark, along with Kyle Washington, are all gone and have left huge holes for the players on this year’s team to fill.
“I think they’ve tried from the beginning,” Cronin said. “Obviously we didn’t get the job done in our opener last month. Since then, I think we’ve done a better job coaching them on offense. But I think from the beginning, they’ve tried. We got guys with really good attitudes on this team.”