No. 15 Cincinnati renews rivalry with Memphis

CINCINNATI — Mick Cronin feels fortunate to have avoided the significant injuries that have befallen some college basketball teams this season. Cronin’s team is fully healthy and if that remains the case, the No. 15 Bearcats could be poised for a deep tournament run.

“You look around the country, there have been a lot of bad injuries,” said Cronin, who picked up his 300th career win versus Tulsa on Saturday. “If you want to make a run … you need to be healthy and have some breaks go your way. It is important to keep guys fresh, physically and mentally, for March.”

On Thursday night, the long-standing rivalry between Cincinnati and Memphis is renewed at Fifth Third Arena as the Bearcats and Tigers meet for the 74th time in a series which spans 39 years and four conferences.

The Bearcats lead the series 40-33, including a 22-10 mark at Fifth Third Arena. The home team has won the past five meetings.

Cincinnati (24-3, 13-1 American Athletic) is looking to extend its home winning streak to 25 games. A victory also would give the Bearcats their best start during Cronin’s tenure.

Cincinnati has been ranked nationally for 13 straight weeks.

Memphis (18-9, 8-6) and first-year coach Tubby Smith have had a week off since losing at Connecticut, the Tigers’ third defeat in the past four games.

To this point, a relatively minor knee injury to freshman center Nysier Brooks the only significant injury to date. Brooks missed only three games.

The Tigers are led by 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Dedric Lawson, who leads the AAC with 10.1 rebounds and ranks second in the league with an average of 19.5 points.

The big news out of Memphis this week, however, is that Lawson will forgo his junior year and declare for the NBA draft, as reported by radio host Jason Smith on Memphis’ ESPN 92.9 FM.

For now, the Tigers are leaning heavily on Lawson, who ranks sixth in the nation with 17 double-doubles.

“He’s a really skilled offensive player,” Cronin said. “He knows how to get his defender off balance and get fouled. At 19 years old, he’s a pretty skilled offensive player.”

Memphis ranks second in the AAC in steals, third in scoring and third in assists.

“They’re athletic. They’re long. They’re fast,” said Cronin. “They can convert bad offense into layups at the other end. They have very talented offensive players. They pose some problems.”

For the second straight season, Bearcats junior forward Gary Clark is hitting his stride at just the right time. Clark is averaging 11.7 points and 10.8 rebounds in February. Last season, he averaged 13.1 points and 10 rebounds in February. He has six combined double-doubles over the past two Februarys.

Another key to Cincinnati’s success is the steady play of senior point guard Troy Caupain, who needs two assists to pass Cashmere Wright for third place on the school’s all-time list. Caupain is one reason why the Bearcats rank third in the country in assists-to-turnover ratio.

“He does an excellent job running our team,” said Cronin. “Then the intangibles of being a senior, wanting to have a great year. We have a lot of great things ahead of us, and he knows that.”