One of the record-breaking 11 teams from the Big East Conference to make it into the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Cincinnati Bearcats square off against the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the West Regional at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. tonight.
Seeded sixth in the region, the Bearcats showed tremendous growth under head coach Mick Cronin this season and were almost one of the forgotten programs in the talent-rich Big East. The team rumbled through the first 15 games of the season unscathed, defeating the likes of Xavier and Oklahoma along the way. A few hard-luck losses in conference still didn't keep them from being a threat to the more established Big East squads as they finished 11-7. Cincinnati defeated USF by a whopping 87-61 score during the conference tournament in New York City before being crushed itself by Notre Dame a day later, 89-61, leaving the squad with a 25-8 overall record heading into this phase of the postseason.
As for the 11th-seeded Tigers, they trounced almost everyone who dared venture into Columbia this season, putting up a 17-1 record. However, when it came to hitting the road the group was a mere 2-7 overall and defeated just one Big 12 opponent away from home (Iowa State). Missouri struggled down the stretch with three straight losses to Kansas State, Nebraska and Kansas before putting up an 88-84 win versus Texas Tech in the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the thrill was short-lived because the team was taken down by Texas A&M 24 hours later, 86-71.
In terms of NCAA Tournament history, Missouri has a record of 22-23 in 24 appearances, reaching the Elite Eight in 2009 but only advancing to the second round a year ago.
As for the Bearcats, they have a pair of national championships to their credit, but you have to go all the way back to the days of Oscar Robertson for those in the early 1960's. Nevertheless, Cincy has a record of 40-23 in 25 appearances and made the Final Four six times overall.
The winner of this first-ever meeting advances to the next round on Saturday to challenge the survivor of the Bucknell/UConn contest for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
More than anything else, the Tigers bring balance to the floor as all five starters average in double figures. Tops among them is Marcus Denmon, who delivers an impressive 17.1 ppg and has scored at least 19 points in seven of the last eight outings. The All-Big 12 performer has averaged more than 30 minutes per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent behind the three-point line. Laurence Bowers checks in with 11.6 ppg and is tied with Ricardo Ratliffe (10.5 ppg) on the glass with 6.1 rpg each. Both physical players, they've combined for 106 blocked shots this season, but also fouled out a collective eight times as well. Kim English and Michael Dixon may not be the best shooters in the league, but they have been able to contribute 10.2 ppg, the latter also being tied with Phil Pressey for the team lead with 112 assists. One of the top-scoring teams in the nation this season, Missouri puts up an average of 81.4 ppg.
Like the Tigers, Cincinnati produced a very balanced offense this season, although the group didn't score nearly the number of points as routinely and finished with a modest 69.0 ppg. More importantly for the Bearcats, they limited opponents to just 59.2 ppg, one of the best marks in not just the Big East, but the nation as well. While the team failed to have a single player start every game this season, that doesn't mean they didn't have a chemistry that worked well as Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon led the way in scoring with 11.8 and 11.6 ppg, respectively. Gates, who shot 50.7 percent from the floor and was responsible for the team-best 6.8 rpg and 42 blocked shots, did have his troubles at the free-throw line where he shot just 59.0 percent. Dixon emerged as one of the better three-point shooters for the group with his 48 conversions, but it might be Sean Kilpatrick that shines the brightest for the club as he hits close to 40 percent of his threes and has put up 9.9 ppg primarily as a reserve.
The question here is whether or not the Tigers can pump up the tempo or if Cincinnati's defense will keep the pace to a minimum so that the Bearcats can compete. It might be easier to frustrate Missouri than anything else, so give the edge to the Bearcats tonight.