Unbeaten Mississippi State to tackle No. 25 Cincinnati
Don’t be fooled by their records.
After reeling off seven straight wins to start the season, the Cincinnati Bearcats have lost two straight and stand at 7-2 heading into Tuesday’s game with Mississippi State.
Make that undefeated Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs are 8-0, their best start since the 2003-04 season when they went on to win the SEC regular-season title. A closer look reveals that the Bulldogs’ strength of schedule ranks 349th out of 351 Division I teams.
Mississippi State veteran coach Ben Howland knows Tuesday’s game at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky in Highland Heights, Ky., is a chance for his squad to legitimize its early success. But it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be a very difficult game when you look at how they play in switching and pressing for 40 minutes every time they score,” Howland said. “We’ll be tested.”
The No. 25 Bearcats have been tested. Their two losses have come to city rival Xavier — now ranked 10th — on Dec. 2 and on Saturday to then-No. 5 Florida.
The Bearcats were un-Cincinnati like against the Gators, committing 21 turnovers, which Florida turned into 27 points.
Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said the number of turnovers were “mind boggling.”
“We handled (the ball) better as the game went on, but then we missed wide-open shots,” Cronin told cincinnati.com. “At the end of the day, they made a few more free throws than we did down the stretch. It becomes a one-possession game and when that happens, you could look back to a million things. A breakdown here, a breakdown there.”
With the game tied at 60-60, the Bearcats failed to score in the final 90 seconds and any chance of upsetting the Gators was doomed by a pair of turnovers.
“Lay people, all they know is whether you won or lost,” Cronin said. “You can play poorly and win, and nobody listens. Winning makes you soft. Winning makes you arrogant. It makes your players content. It’s the hardest thing as a coach. I thought we played much harder (against Florida), especially defensively, but obviously not hard enough to win.”
Cronin has shortened his rotation to playing only seven players. Gary Clark is leading the team with 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
As with most Cronin-coached teams, defense is the Bearcats’ hallmark. They allow only 61.8 points per game, 20th-fewest in the nation. The pound the boards and are ranked 12th in the nation, averaging 42.2.
The Bulldogs hang their hat on defense as well — they allow only 61.9 points. And despite having played all their games on the friendly confines of their campus and not playing quality competition, the Bulldogs enter the game with their confidence soaring.
“We feel like we are ready to go on the road,” second-leading scorer Quinndary Weatherspoon told the Clarion Ledger newspaper following their latest victory. “As long as our defense travels with us, we will have a chance. We are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”