No. 6 Cincinnati wary of SMU’s home presence

Sixth-ranked Cincinnati owns a 15-game winning streak and a three-game lead in the American Athletic Conference standings as it rolls into Dallas to play Southern Methodist on Sunday at Moody Coliseum.

But all the momentum the Bearcats have built over their successful two-month run could be lost in one complacent performance against the short-handed Mustangs.

Part of the challenge Sunday will be beating SMU on the road, a feat that Cincinnati hasn’t accomplished since February 2015. The Mustangs are 13-1 at home this season and have lost just five of 86 games in their home gym since it was renovated and expanded prior to the 2013-14 season.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin understands the importance of this game and how difficult it is to win in Dallas. The Bearcats have lost twice in a row at Moody Coliseum.

“We’ve got to be ready to take their best shot, ready for a hostile environment,” Cronin said. “This is a game they probably need to win to get into the NCAA Tournament, so we would be foolish to think that they’re not going to play unbelievably hard to give themselves a chance to get a quality win.

“I would give their home winning 80 percent to their coaching and play, and 20 percent to their crowd, maybe. But it’s been good.”

Cincinnati’s most recent win was a 77-40 rout over UCF on Tuesday in its temporary home, at Northern Kentucky University, that pushed the Bearcats (22-2, 11-0 AAC) into the top spot in the nation for average margin of victory (20.4 points per game). Purdue ranks second at 19.8 ppg.

The Bearcats easily handled SMU in the first meeting this season, winning 76-56 at “home.”

SMU (15-9, 5-6), the defending conference champion, has struggled mightily in recent weeks as it has dealt with injuries to key players and a tough stretch of AAC games.

Mustangs junior guard Shake Milton, who is averaging 18.0 points and was named conference preseason player of the year by the AAC’s coaches, has missed the past two games with a hand injury and likely won’t play on Sunday. SMU has lost three of its past four contests and is 0-2 without Milton in the lineup.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich said after SMU’s 67-58 loss at Houston on Thursday that Milton’s status is day-to-day.

“Shake is questionable for the Cincinnati game and could still be a week and a half away from where he needs to be,” Jankovich said. “He’s getting better, but I don’t know when it’s going to be good, where he’s good to play and can be effective.”

SMU is also down to only seven available scholarship players after junior guard Jarrey Foster (knee) and freshman forward Everett Ray (foot) were lost for the season to injuries. Foster was the Mustangs’ second-leading scorer at 13.2 points per game when he went down.

Junior guard Jahmal McMurray has taken the Mustangs’ reins in Milton’s absence as the team leader. McMurray averaged double digits in scoring when he played at South Florida before transferring to SMU. He has averaged 19.7 points in SMU’s past three and is averaging 12.1 points on the season.

Cincinnati will be the eighth opponent that is ranked or has received votes to face SMU this season; the Mustangs are 4-3 in the first seven of those games.