Incrementally, 25th-ranked Cincinnati has started to do what it annually does, inflicting upon opponents a suffocating brand of defense that fosters intimidation and produces victories.
That the Bearcats didn't open this season armed with the experience to uphold their defensive-minded reputation presented a modest challenge in hindsight. Through effort and repetition, however, Cincinnati has arrived at the point that it usually reaches by this point of the season, an intersection that showcases an ability to wear down the competition with enviable regularity.
On Sunday at the Fertitta Center in Houston, the Bearcats (20-3, 9-1 American Athletic Conference) will seek their ninth consecutive victory while facing a team that achieves success in a similar manner: No. 12 Houston (22-1, 9-1), a defensive and rebounding juggernaut in its own right.
The Bearcats needed time to develop a quintet of contributors who didn't play vitals roles last season: juniors Nysier Brooks, Rashawn Fredericks, and Tre Scott, plus sophomores Eliel Nsoseme and Keith Williams. All five average double figures in minutes, with Brooks, Scott, and Williams entrenched as starters. The investment has, particularly of late, paid huge dividends.
"To be an elite team defensively and physically and rebounding, it takes older, experienced guys," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. "And our frontline guys are not that. They've gained it this year, but they were bench players last year. And I've coached enough teams to tell you that it's hard to impose your will on younger teams when you're not the older team.
"We've done a really good job of it, but I knew defensively would be a challenge for us. To be able to snuff a team out as a veteran, older team is a hard thing to do unless you're a veteran, older team, which we are not."
The Cougars are that veteran, older team, with their nation-leading, 31-game home winning streak a testament to their ability to thrive when segments of their game aren't clicking. Defense and rebounding have been staples for Houston, which has spent the bulk of the season ranked at or near the top of the heap in key defensive categories. And while Cincinnati ranks second in the AAC in rebounding margin (plus-6.7), Houston tops the list at plus-7.9 per game.
Houston, sporting its highest national ranking since finishing fifth to conclude the 1983-84 regular season, features three seniors (guards Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr., plus forward Breaon Brady) and one junior (sharpshooting guard Armoni Brooks) in its starting lineup. Underclassmen fill out the depth chart, but the Cougars know where to turn when things get tight, when they need a timely bucket or an important stop defensively.
For the Cougars, experience matters. Their rousing success this season is attributed to so many of their players having invested sweat equity in this program rebuild.
"The best part is seeing myself grow but also, more importantly, seeing the program grow," Robinson Jr. said. "The work we put in with coach (Kelvin) Sampson on a day-in and day-out basis -- we know he knows his stuff. But to see our hard work get paid off and be able to go to the NCAA tournament last year, it was crazy because that's everything you dream about as a kid. To be able to be a part of that is something I can't describe."
--Field Level Media