Coming off back-to-back losses to close the regular season, No. 24 Cincinnati will look to play with a little more toughness as it opens its American Athletic tournament Friday with a quarterfinal game against SMU at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn.
The Bearcats (25-6) are the tournament's second seed after falling to No. 12 Houston at home on Sunday. A win in that game would have granted Cincinnati a share of the AAC regular-season title. Instead, the Cougars -- who won both contests against Cincinnati this season -- are the tournament's top seed.
The 10th-seeded Mustangs earned a berth in the quarterfinals via a 74-65 victory over seventh-seeded Tulsa in the Thursday's fourth and final first-round AAC tournament contest.
This is the fourth time in six seasons in the AAC that the Bearcats have finished either first or second in the league standings. Cincinnati won the regular season outright a year ago and shared the title with Louisville in 2014. The Bearcats finished second to SMU in 2017.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was considering making a call to the Bearcats' football team after the 85-69 loss to Houston to find some help in the lane. Jarron Cumberland scored a team-high 20 points for the Bearcats in the setback while Nysier Brooks added 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting with six assists and two blocks.
Cincinnati was outrebounded 42-28 in the loss and surrendered 18 offensive boards. It was the second straight game that the Bearcats has lost the battle of the boards, after UCF outrebounded them 40-33 in a 58-55 Knights win.
"Around here, we've won a lot of games because no one gets 18 offensive rebounds against us -- it just doesn't happen," Cronin told reporters after the loss to Houston. "If you're going to get on the plane and represent the team that I coach, you're going to block out and go after the ball. They need to be embarrassed, just like their coach is."
Cincinnati looks to win back-to-back league tournaments for the first time since 1994-95, while in the Great Midwest Conference. A year ago, the Bearcats defeated SMU (61-51), Memphis (70-60) and Houston (56-55) on consecutive days to win the AAC championship, Cincinnati's first league tournament title since 2004 while a member of Conference USA.
SMU took charge of the Thursday's win over Tulsa with a dominating first half in which the Mustangs outshot the Golden Hurricane 62 percent to 39 percent on the way to a 47-33 lead at the break.
The Mustangs (15-16) got 27 points from Jahmal McMurray, who hit 9 of his 11 free throws. Ethan Chargois added 12 points (10 in the first half) and Jarrey Foster scored 10 for SMU.
"The first half -- especially after the first four minutes -- could not have gone better for us," SMU coach Tim Jankovich told reporters. "It all areas we played fantastic and built a big enough lead to win the game. Tulsa made a good comeback -- and games are won in the last five or six minutes -- but we were able to stay strong and finish it."
Cincinnati leads the SMU series 12-5 overall, with the Bearcats capturing each of the past five meetings. SMU fell in two close games against the Bearcats this season, 73- 68 at Cincinnati on Feb. 2 and 52-49 in Dallas on Feb. 27.
"There is reason for optimism," Jankovich said. "Not to be overly optimistic, but our guys believe if everybody feels good enough to play, we could really make a run, and I'm going to choose to believe that, as well."
The two teams have met in each of the last two AAC tournaments, with the Cincinnati winning 61-51 in the quarterfinals last year in Orlando. SMU defeated the Bearcats 71-56 in the 2017 AAC tournament championship game in Hartford, Conn.
--Field Level Media