No. 5 Cincinnati wary of showdown at Houston

By Steve Habel, The Sports Xchange  |  Feb. 15, 2018 at 10:30 AM
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Fifth-ranked Cincinnati's showdown against Houston on Thursday is the second half to the Bearcats' Texas Two-Step, but will be the surging American Athletic Conference front-runner's most challenging dance move in months.

The Bearcats (23-2, 12-0 AAC) are riding high on a nation-leading 16-game win streak that includes a 76-51 victory over SMU in Dallas on Sunday. But Houston, winners of three straight and owners of a perfect 12-0 record in their home-away-from-home at Texas Southern University's H&PE Arena, might be the last true roadblock to a perfect league season for Cincinnati.

"They're undefeated at home even though, like us, they're not at home," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "That's pretty impressive. We learned hopefully, the first time, that they're a really good team.

"I'm hoping our guys have great respect for their talent level from the first time we played them, how good of shooters they are and how hard they played against us."

The Cougars gave Cincinnati one of its biggest scares of the season when the Bearcats rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Houston 80-70 on Jan. 31 at Northern Kentucky University.

"They're going to be all fired up because we beat them at home," Cincinnati forward Gary Clark said. "For teams that are all trying to get in the tournament, a win against us would be huge."

Houston (19-5, 9-3) is unranked and underrated by pollsters. The Cougars and No. 19 Wichita State are tied for second place in the AAC, three games off the Bearcats' pace. Wichita State will travel to the Queen City on Sunday for the latest in a series of huge games for Cincinnati.

Cronin is wary of Houston's offensive ability to score as the Cougars rank second in the AAC at 77.0 points per game. Cincinnati is third, at 76.5.

Houston brings its own modicum of momentum into Thursday's game after defeating Tulane 72-43 on Sunday in its most recent outing.

As big a game as it for Cincinnati, it's even more important for the Cougars as they have a chance to not only pad their NCAA resume but possibly lock in an at-large bid with a victory. All the major national projections have Houston safety in the NCAA Tournament, anywhere between a 10-11 seed.

Houston sophomore guard Armoni Brooks earned AAC Player of the Week honors on the strength of his play in wins over SMU (23 points and 10 rebounds) and Tulane (11 points and 10 rebounds). They were the first two double-doubles of Brooks' career.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said he understands the challenge his team faces from Cincinnati.

"We have already played them once, it's not like we have to go and study them hard," Sampson explained. "They aren't a hard team to prepare for. They are just a monster to play against. They don't try to trick you with fancy stuff. They line up and have a 100 mile per hour fastball, with movement on it and they say hit it."

Sampson added that the Cougars will prepare for Cincinnati the way they prepare for every game.

"We don't have different ways to prepare," Sampson said. "This game will be a big game to a lot of people outside our program. For us, we have played them and it's another conference game. We are not going to make this game any bigger than our next game."

Cincinnati owns a 30-2 advantage in the series, which began Dec. 21, 1957. The Bearcats have won the last three meetings and 18 of the past 19. A 69-56 Houston home win March 3, 2016 snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Bearcats and was the Cougars' first win against Cincinnati since Feb. 2, 1973.

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