Houston at Cincinnati Preview

Cincinnati will look to end a nine-game losing streak to Houston on Saturday afternoon when the Cougars (19-3, 6-3) visit Fifth Third Arena for a 4 pm tip off.

Houston responded to a loss at Kansas (78-65) by dominating a struggling Oklahoma State team, 79-63. 

The Bearcats return home riding momentum following a 75-72 road win over 15th-ranked Texas Tech.

(Photo: Houston Athletics)

Key Stats and Notes:

- Kelvin Sampson's team ranks first in the country in scoring defense (54 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (36.9 percent) , eighth in steals per game (10) , tenth in turnovers forced per game (16.45), and eleventh in three-point percentage defense (28.9 percent). Houston is first in Kenpom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

"If you could mimic what Houston does on defense, other people would be doing it in games. There's a reason they're the best defensive team in college basketball. They have been. They continue to be," Miller told reporters during his early week press conference.

" You can't simulate it in practice but you got to try to do a good job of figuring out a good game plan and how to execute against a unique style." 

- Offensively, Houston averages 73.5 points per game which ranks tenth in the Big 12. However, their plus-19.5 scoring margin leads the league. The Cougars are 18th in Kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency. 

- Houston makes 43.5 percent of their field goal attempts and 35 percent of their three-point field goal attempts. Houston ranks fifth in the Big 12 at 7.7 makes per game from beyond the arc. 

- Both teams have struggled from the free throw line this year. Cincinnati ranks 12th in the Big 12 at 68.5 percent, while Houston ranks 13th in the league at 68 percent. In a game where things will likely get physical, converting from the free throw line will be key for both teams. 

- Cincinnati ranks 17th in Kenpom's defensive efficiency and top 15 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Houston leads the Big 12 in offensive rebounds at 14.7 per game. That number is slightly higher than the Bearcats' 14.3 offensive rebounds per game. The Bearcats' 9.7 rebounding margin leads the Big 12 and is almost three more per game than Houston's 6.9 average. 

- Houston currently has six Quad 1 wins which ranks third nationally. The Cougars are 2-3 in road games during Big 12 play. 

- A win by the Bearcats would be Cincinnati's highest-ranked since beating No. 2 Syracuse in the 2012 Big East Tournament. It would also be the fourth over a ranked team this season, the most since having four in 2013-14.

Players to watch:

6'1 Senior G LJ Cryer

At 15.1 points per game, Cryer is the leading scorer this season for the Cougars. Cryer has been Houston's most consistent three-point threat, making 38 percent of his attempts while also knocking down 87.2 percent of his free throw attempts. Cryer recently was named to the John R. Wooden Award Late Season Top 25 Watch List and Top-10 Candidate for the Jerry West Award, presented to the nation's top shooting guard.

6'1 Senior G Jamal Shead

Shead finished with 16 points, 9 assists in the Cougars' 69-48 win over Cincinnati last season in the AAC Conference Semi Finals. The senior guard is averaging 12.5 points per game this season and has been extremely efficient from the field, converting on 45.6 percent of his field goal attempts. His 35.4 three-point percentage is up from 30.1 percent last season. Shead also averages 5.8 assists per game and pulls down 3.6 rebounds per game. Shead is one of only three players to rank among the nation's Top-30 leaders in assists per game, steals per game and assist-turnover ratio.

Earlier this week, the Manor, Texas, native was named to the Naismith Award Defensive Player of the Year Watch List. Shead is also a Top-10 candidate for the Bob Cousy Award, presented annually by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to the nation's top point guard.

Slowing him down will be the biggest key for the Bearcats. Shead was held to seven points in the loss to Kansas.

6'3 Sophomore G Emanuel Sharp

Sharp has had an up and down season but has been consistent over the past three games, scoring in double figures all three games while making nine of 20 three-point attempts. For the season, Sharp averages 12.3 points per game and pulls down four rebounds per game. Sharp is second on the team in three-point field goal percentage (36 percent) and free throw percentage (82.8 percent). 

6'7 Redshirt-Senior F J'Wan Roberts

Roberts has been extremely consistent around the rim, making 55.1 percent of his field goal attempts but is shooting just 54 percent from the free throw line. Still, Roberts averages 8.6 points per game and leads the team with seven rebounds per game. His best game of the season was a 20-point, 13 rebound game against TCU, in which he also dished out five assists.

6'5 Grad Transfer Damin Dunn

The last time Cincinnati fans saw Dunn, he poured in 34 points against the Bearcats in an 88-83 loss by his former team, Temple. Dunn averaged 15.3 points  per game last season but hasn't experienced the same success since arriving in Houston. Dunn averages 7.3 points per game in just under 19 minutes per game. He is still knocking down 34 percent of his three-point attempts but has seen his field goal percentage dip from 41.1 percent to 38.1 percent. Dunn is also making 67.7 percent of his free throw attempts, after converting at an 81 percent clip last season. Dunn was held without a point in three of his past six games. 

6'8 Junior F Ja.Vier Francis

Francis does all of his damage around the rim. While averaging just six points per game, Francis leads the team in field goal percentage (61.8) and also pulls down 5.3 rebounds per game. Francis is the primary rim protector at 1.4 blocks per game. 

6'7 Freshman F Joseph Tugler

Tugler was a Top-70 four-star prospect coming out of Cy Falls (Houston) during the 2023 recruiting cycle. While he has not scored in double figures this season and averages just 3.9 points per game, he has made an impact on the glass during his freshman season, averaging 4.4 rebounds per game and converting 54.5 percent of his field goal attempts. Tugler played well against Kansas, finishing with eight points, eight rebounds. 


Final Thoughts:

The Cougars aren't a particularly deep team. Their depth was hit hard when sophomore Terrance Arecenaux was lost in December to an achilles tear. Cryer, Shead, Sharp, and Roberts all play 25 or more minutes per game with Dunn, Francis, and Tugler playing between 16-20 minutes per game in that fifth spot. 

This is a match up where, for the first time in a while, Cincinnati matches up well in size, athleticism, and depth. The Cougars have used a "bully-ball" mentality against the Bearcats over the past three years but that shouldn't be the case this season with Miller finally having a team that checks the boxes in defense, physicality, and rebounding. 

Cincinnati will have to avoid turnovers and not allow Houston second chance opportunities. Houston ranks fourth nationally with just 8.3 turnovers per game, so forcing turnovers and converting those opportunities into points will go a long way in avoiding struggles in half-court situations where Houston has proved to be elite defensively. 

Houston is favored by 5.5 points with the over/under set at 130.5. 

A win over Houston would signal this program has officially taken that next step in getting back to the program that was built by Bearcat toughness. 

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