With the season hitting a bit of a rough patch, the Gators will be in tough to turn things around against the talented Cincinnati Bearcats. Currently ranked #17 in the AP Polls, this is not the type of opponent you want to play after losing three consecutive games, although if Florida can come away victorious they could salvage what has been a very difficult week. Currently with a win over Gonzaga under their belts, the Gators need more signature top 25 wins to balance out losses to unranked Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. The NCAA Tournament selection and seeding committee has made it known how much they are going to value wins away from home, so a neutral site victory for the Gators in New Jersey could be huge. This is a massive game for the Gators, so let’s take a look at what we can expect.
Cincinnati’s head coach Mick Cronin is entering his 12th season with the club and has developed the program into a regular at the NCAA Tournament. Though they’ve only made it past the first weekend once, the Bearcats have made the big dance every year since the 2011-12 season, the kind of consistency any program would desire. Considering they were a preseason top 25 team this year and are playing in a much improved American Athletic Conference, you can be sure they’ll be back this season. Cronin’s teams have always been known for their grit and tenacity, often using pressing defenses and high-pressure zones to make opponents uncomfortable. We’ll see what they bring against the Gators on Saturday.
Season to Date
The Bearcats are 7-1, suffering their only loss to rival Xavier in the famed Crosstown Shootout. Though these were two excellent, top 25 ranked teams it wasn’t the play on the court that was the big news. Things got incredible chippy in the handshake line after the game and it led to coach Mick Cronin going after notorious troll and Xavier wing JP Macura (the same player who used the Gator Chomp earlier in the year to remind Wisconsin fans of last year’s loss to the Gators). It’s not often you have to see a coach being held back from going after a player, so this was generally considered a really bad look for Cronin. After that embarrassing showing both in score (Cincinnati lost by 13 but was never in the game from the opening tip) and after the game, the Bearcats will be hungry for a big win. I’m sure they’ll also recognize the fact that you don’t often get to play a #5 ranked team on a three game losing streak with two losses to unranked teams, so they’ll be up for this one.
Cincinnati has historically hung their hat on physical and disruptive defense, but this year’s team could be the best offensive group Cronin has ever had. Currently ranked 27th in offensive efficiency, they clearly can put the ball in the hoop. They play at a fairly brisk tempo with the 56th quickest possessions in the country, and they have hit over 100 points on two occasions this season. Despite playing a fairly easy schedule other then the Xavier game they haven’t been excellent in transition, even though it has been a focus. 60% from the field in transition is a pretty good number, but they have turned the ball over on 15.5% of these attempts and that is an area the Gators need to try to exploit. Coach Cronin is notorious for hating turnovers and pulling players that he deems to be too loose with the ball, so if the Gators are able to dispossess a few Bearcats things could come unraveled for them quickly. One signature mark of the Cincinnati offense this year is their work off of the ball. Instead of leaning on ball handlers to get dribble penetration or using pick and rolls to get things started, the Bearcats do most of their work off of the ball and utilize ball movement to get the kind of shots they are looking for. 61% of their field goals are assisted, a testament to their dedication to ball movement and their trust in teammates. To contrast, the Gators only assist on 49.6% of their field goals (243rd in the country). Another staple of Cincinnati’s offense are post ups, normally from senior big men Kyle Washington and Gary Clark. The Bearcats end 9.7% of their possessions with a post up, and they’ve converted pretty well at 51.1%. Though Clark is a very publicized player, Washington has actually been the better post scorer converting at an incredible 60% on the block. We know the struggles the Gators have had against low post scorers, and they’ll need to find a way to shore that up if they are going to win this game. Florida’s bigs need to do their work early and fight for good position to force Washington and Clark to go further out to catch the ball. When they do get it, forcing them to take the ball to their non-dominant hand should limit easy hook shots in the paint. Avoiding fouls will be tough as the Bearcats are 65th nationally at getting to the line, though they have struggled at the stripe shooting only 67.8% (248th in the country). The Gators will have their hands full trying to defend in this one, but they’ve had some time to prepare and should know what to expect from a team who has played a similar brand of basketball for the last several seasons.
Showing incredible toughness, strong fundamentals, and the ability to change defenses on the fly, the Bearcats are extremely tough to score on. They are currently 8th in the country at defensive efficiency, and have frustrated teams all season trying to solve their unique defensive schemes. One of the trademarks of Cincinnati’s defense has been to play several different styles, so it’s not uncommon to see them play pressure man defense, pack line man defense, a matchup zone, and a zone press, among others. This makes them very difficult to prepare for and the Gators will have to rely on reading and adjusting in real time as to not waste possessions just trying to figure out what defense they are seeing. There are several SEC teams that like to frantically change defenses so this shouldn’t be something unfamiliar to the upperclassmen, but when you have struggled to score like the Gators have the last few games playing a team that throws the kitchen sink at you defensively isn’t exactly what you want to see. In terms of field goal percentage allowed their zone has been the best defense only allowing 34.4% from the field, and considering the way the Gators have struggled to shoot recently we could very well see that look from the Bearcats. Whatever defense they are in, Cincinnati is one of the best paint protecting teams in college basketball. Second in the nation in two-point field goal percentage allowed, teams have only shot 38.1% in that area of the floor. Even more impressively, teams have only shot 39.5% around the rim against the Bearcats, an incredibly impressive number considering that shots around the rim are the most efficient shot in basketball. They protect the rim in a few ways, both with shot blocking (they 13th nationally in block percentage), by taking charges, and by remaining vertical and forcing misses without committing fouls. Limiting ball reversal on the perimeter also helps them protect the paint, as keeping the ball on one side of the floor means that the help side players responsible for protecting the rim don’t have to move side to side very often. This means they can find the proper position to be in and stay there for much of the possession. Considering the Gators’ offensive struggles of late this has the potential to be a very difficult matchup for them, but I’m sure coach Mike White will have a plan of attack that if executed well will lead to points.
Cincinnati is a veteran team, returning 59.2% of their minutes from last season. This team is full of juniors and seniors that have been to the NCAA Tournament each year they’ve played, so they understand what it’s like to play a tough opponent on a neutral floor.
Keys for the Gators
Finding a way to recognize Cincinnati’s defense and attack accordingly. They play so many different defensive styles so I’m not entirely sure what the Gators will see, and even within a basic man defense the Bearcats can play different styles to show different looks. I think the Gators need to be more patient offensively then they have been these last few games instead of settling for tough shots early. If the Gators use the whole shot clock, find nothing, and then are forced to shoot a tough jumper that is a lot better then shooting a tough jumper early in the shot clock when they haven’t had to make the defense work. Additionally, they need to find a way to limit Gary Clark and Kyle Washington down low. Cincinnati already posts these guys up a lot and I’m sure they are very aware of Florida’s interior struggles so you know they will make a concentrated effort to do this so the Gators need to find a way to defend inside. After starting small for much of the season the Gators did play a bigger lineup against Loyola-Chicago and I think that would be a good direction to go in this one. Chase Johnson might be good to go on Saturday after an illness had been bothering him, and though he isn’t a surefire fix to the Gators’ problems inside I think they should give him a look and see what he has to offer as many other post players have struggled to start the year.
This is a massive game for the Gators, so be sure to stay locked on Gator Country before, during, and after the game for some great discussion and coverage.