Cincinnati looks to step up its defense vs. E. Carolina (Jan 15, 2017)
Coach Mick Cronin wants to see No. 22 Cincinnati improve on the defensive end and become a better offensive rebounding team.
The American Athletic Conference frontrunners have a chance to work on those weaknesses Sunday against what could be an inspired opponent when they meet East Carolina at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, N.C.
At 14-2 overall and 4-0 in the AAC, the Bearcats are coming off a 66-64 win Thursday night at SMU, prevailing despite 1-of-10 shooting and two points from leading scorer Jacob Evans. They compensated with 18 points from Gary Clark and another 16 from point guard Troy Caupain.
"It was a good win for our team," Cronin said, "but our defense left a lot to be desired. We let them get comfortable. As the game went on, we took nothing away from them. They were getting everything they wanted."
However, Cincinnati still limited the Mustangs to 40 percent shooting. On paper, the offensively-challenged Pirates should pose less of a challenge as they enter the game last in the AAC in scoring (62.7 ppg) and 10th in field goal percentage at 40.4. They have dropped four straight games.
But East Carolina may get a boost from the knowledge this is the last time it'll play for coach Jeff Lebo for a while. Lebo is undergoing hip surgery on Monday and will be sidelined indefinitely, with assistant coach Michael Perry running the team in his absence.
"I've been dealing with this pain for a couple of years and it has become increasingly unbearable," Lebo said. "The best thing for my personal welfare as well as my family and our team is for me to have this done right away."
The Pirates (9-9, 1-4) have injury issues beyond their bench. Leading scorer B.J. Tyson (11.9 ppg) is out indefinitely after suffering a knee injury in Wednesday night's 74-58 home loss to Houston. The absence of Tyson, who also leads the team in assists (55) and steals (53), will force East Carolina to rely more on a defense that's limiting opponents to 62.6 ppg.
Guard Caleb White and forward Kentrell Barkley, who are averaging 11.4 and 10.9 ppg, figure to get more shots as the Pirates try to adjust to Tyson's loss. They'll have to figure out something against an opponent they've beaten just once in 11 all-time meetings, that happening on Feb. 1, 2015 in Greenville.
Although he never got off the mark at SMU, Evans is tallying 14.3 ppg on 49.4 percent field goal shooting and 41.7 percent 3-point marksmanship, leading four teammates in double figures. Kyle Washington chips in 13.6, while Caupain and Clark are each scoring 10.4.
While the Bearcats convert 48.3 percent of their field goals and are averaging 78.4 ppg, Cronin is pointing at second-chance points at a way to make them even better offensively. They had only four offensive boards at SMU and have grabbed four fewer offensive caroms than their opponents this season.
"We think we're going to make everything and nobody's working hard for an offensive rebound," Cronin said. "There's areas we can improve. Offensive rebounding is definitely one of them."