No. 21 Cincinnati needs to shake off rust vs. Memphis

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said he is concerned about Sunday’s American Athletic Conference opener against Memphis. Not so much because of the Tigers — the Bearcats have won five of the past seven meetings — but rather the circumstances.

Cincinnati hasn’t played since Dec. 21 and now must play a mid-afternoon league game on New Year’s Eve, no less.

“Ten-day layoffs are kind of unheard of in college basketball,” Cronin said. “We had five legitimate off-days, four days of practice to get ready for a game. I’m paranoid about Memphis, because of the layoff. I don’t expect us to be smooth-looking in anything we do on Sunday.”

No. 21 Cincinnati (11-2) hosts the Tigers (9-4) at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University, where UC is playing its home games.

The Bearcats own the nation’s longest home-court win streak at 33 games. Cincinnati hasn’t lost at home since Dec. 29, 2015, when it dropped a 77-70 decision to Temple.

Cincinnati is 23-4 in conference openers since 1990, including an 8-3 mark during Cronin’s tenure and 3-1 in AAC openers.

As his team prepares to begin its fifth season in the AAC, Cronin insists the league is much better than advertised.

“I think our league is the best it’s been since our first year (2014) when Connecticut won the national title,” Cronin said. “Four or five NCAA Tournament teams (projected). So, our league’s pretty strong this year.”

The Bearcats, who were voted slim favorites to win the league over newcomer Wichita State, have won four straight games. UC leads the all-time series with Memphis 41-33, including a 23-10 mark as the home team. The home team has won the past six meetings, including Cincinnati’s 87-74 victory on Feb. 23, 2017, at Fifth Third Arena.

Cronin praised Memphis guard Jeremiah Martin who averages 18.2 points and 4.1 assists as the focal point of the Tigers’ attack. Memphis is coming off a 10-point loss to LSU on Thursday.

“It was an opportunity for us to make a statement, we didn’t,” said Memphis head coach Tubby Smith, according to the Commercial Appeal. “Gotta have better shooters.”

The Bearcats, meanwhile, have three players averaging in double figures, led by Gary Clark, who averages 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds. Jacob Evans leads the team with 13.6 points per game.

Cincinnati is one of eight teams to appear in the NCAA Tournament in each of the past seven seasons. The Bearcats players say they are used to having a target on their backs when it comes time for conference play.

“Since I’ve been here, the target’s been here,” Clark said. “Teams circle Cincinnati (on the schedule) because it would be good for their resume to get a “W” against us. You are always excited to start conference play. We know the teams, they know us. It comes down to who is the most prepared.”