No. 22 Cincinnati, SMU meet in early battle for AAC lead

CINCINNATI — By late Thursday night, there will be one remaining unbeaten team in American Athletic Conference play after No. 22 Cincinnati and SMU meet at 9 p.m. ET in Fifth Third Arena.

When the Bearcats hosted SMU last season at Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati won despite shooting just 29.5 percent behind a stifling defense that held the Mustangs to 54 points in a seven-point loss.

Suffocating defense continues to be the Bearcats’ mantra this season.

Cincinnati (13-2, 3-0 AAC) ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage defense with opponents shooting just 36 percent, and 15th in scoring defense allowing 61.4 points per game.

“We take a lot of pride in playing hard,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. “I hold them to a really high standard. I tell them that their effort has to be consistent.”

Consistency has been there for SMU as well.

During the Mustangs’ current 10-game win streak, which is tied for third longest in school history, they’ve held opponents to 65 points or less and an average of 54.8 points per game. SMU’s opponents are shooting 37.1 percent during the past 10 contests.

Despite seven scholarship players, the Mustangs are making the most of a short bench and it has resulted in more unselfish play.

“You live on the edge when you have as few players as we do,” first-year coach Tim Jankovich told the Dallas Morning News. “On one hand is the stress of foul trouble, you’re living on that fine line, but when everyone’s healthy, I think it does bond a team. No one’s worried about not getting enough minutes, everyone’s sharing the ball, and you’ve got guys playing with confidence.”

SMU (14-3, 4-0 AAC) is led by 6-foot-7 junior forward Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke who averages 17.9 points and 7.7 rebounds.

SMU and Cincinnati are meeting for the 10th time. The teams split last season’s series, with each team winning on its home floor. Before joining the AAC, the series had been dormant since 1974-75.

The Bearcats have won six straight games and 17 straight at home dating to last season. They’ve been bolstered lately by the improved play of junior forward Kyle Washington, who was named to the AAC weekly honor roll on Monday after posting a team-high 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting from the field with nine rebounds and two blocks in a win at Houston on Saturday.

Washington entered the week ranked among the league leaders in five categories: double-doubles (tied for fifth with five), field goal percentage (sixth at .540), rebounds (seventh at 7.5), blocks (ninth at 1.4) and scoring (11th at 13.8).

SMU thrives on the hot shooting of sophomore guard Milton Shake, who was among 20 candidates named to the 2017 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award watch list. Shake averages 11.9 points with a team-leading 3.1 assists and 34 3-pointers. He was tabbed second team all-conference in the preseason.

An electric atmosphere is expected Thursday night with Cincinnati pushing for a sellout crowd at Fifth Third Arena, which holds more than 13,000.

Cincinnati was picked to win the AAC in a preseason coaches vote and SMU was chosen to finish third.