Scouting Report : Cincinnati

Scouting Report : Cincinnati

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Purdue is seeded 9th in the NCAA Tournament opposite the Cincinnati Bearcats of the American Athletic Conference. For those of you who aren't familiar, the AAC is a newly created conference consisting primarily of the former Big East schools that sponsor Division-I football programs (the Big East obviously still exists, they just booted the football schools into the AAC).  

Your parents (or their parents) might remember Cincinnati as being a dominant basketball program. They made the Final Four five years in a row, from 1959 to 1963, winning the title twice, in 1961 and 1962 (which is an amazing run of success). And while Oscar Robertson ain't walking through that door any time soon, they have experienced some success in recent times, most notably in the 1990s with Bob Huggins at the helm. Their last Sweet Sixteen was in 2012, their last Elite Eight was in 1996, and their last Final Four was in 1992.

 

The finished the season 22-10, 3rd in the AAC, and lost to UConn in the AAC Conference Tournament. I think it's fair to say that they've exceeded expectations this season. They lost their top three scorers and rebounders from last season, so 2014-15 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. On top of that, they lost backcourt contributor Ge'Lawn Guyn to a torn ligament in his finger two games into the season. On top of THAT, head coach Mick Cronin had to step down from head coaching duties on December 20th due to a condition known as arterial dissection, which, if untreated, could have led to a stroke. While Cronin is out (he is reportedly on schedule to be back coaching next season), Associate Head Coach Larry Davis has taken over the head coaching responsibility.

 

Despite all that adversity, Cincinnati has had a very good year, due in large part to the suffocating defense they are known for, the continued development of Octavius Ellis, and a break-out season from Farad Cobb. Cincinnati will be a very tough out.

 

Cincinnati beat two ranked teams this year: San Diego State and Southern Methodist University. Purdue and Cincinnati actually share two opponents: Nebraska and N.C. State. Cincinnati had the misfortune of playing both of those teams on the road (while Purdue played them at home, and won both games), and they lost both of them, a 56-55 (in double OT) rock fight against Nebraska, and 76-60 to N.C. State. ***CORRECTION*** They beat N.C. State by that score.

 

They were 15-3 at home, 6-5 on the road, and 1-2 on neutral courts this year. Their best out of conference win was against San Diego State (RPI: 26), and their worst out of conference loss was to Nebraska (RPI: 158). In conference, they beat SMU (RPI: 12) twice, and lose to Tulane (RPI: 214) and East Carolina (RPI: 220). Their strong out of conference (and total season) strength of schedule helped offset those bad losses. Ken Pom rated them the 34th best team in the nation.

 

Below is a statistical analysis of Cincinnati this season, but in summary, they feature a mediocre at best offense and they do a poor job rebounding, but they have an amazing defense and they control the pace to an exceptional degree. They will put you through the meat grinder, so beating them requires a great deal of toughness. On to the stats...

 

For the uninitiated, the Four Factors were developed to answer the question: "How do teams win games?". Simple, right? The Four Factors are: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Offensive and Defense Rebounding Percentage, and Free Throw Rate. Below are the Four Factors for Cincinnati and Purdue.

 

            RBD%
eFG% TOV% Off Def FT Rate
CINN 0.4019 0.1815 0.3734 0.6819 0.2549
PUR 0.3990 0.1706 0.3971 0.7000 0.2912

 

These two teams are similar, but Purdue holds a statistically significant advantage in terms of fewer turnovers, better rebounding, and creating and taking advantage of free throw opportunities.

 

Some other factors to consider:

 

AdjD Efficiency AdjO Efficiency Tempo W-L vs Tournament Teams
CINN 93.3 106.7 341st 4-3
PUR 97.1 108.5 180th 6-6

 

Purdue has a more efficient offense, plays at a MUCH faster pace, and has won more against other Tournament teams, but Cincinnati's has a top-20 defense in terms of efficiency. Their raw numbers aren't bad as well. They are allowing only 55 points a game (good for 6th fewest in the nation).

 

So what makes Cincinnati's defense so good? They primarily play a match-up zone. For those who aren't familiar, a match-up zone is a combination defense that features a lot of switching, as defenders are responsible for an area in the halfcourt where they play man to man on whoever enters their zone. This allows the defense to play aggressive man to man defense on the ball handler, but allows them to maintain defensive balance and switch when the ball handler enters another player's zone. Essentially, it's man to man defense disguised as a zone. There are many advantages to a match-up zone. You can keep your rim protectors close to the basket, there's always pressure on the ball handler, and the switching provides coverage to cutters and screen actions.

 

Cincinnati uses its length and athleticism to its advantage within their match-up zone defense. They feature five players 6'7'' or taller, including their best player, Octavius Ellis, who is 6'10''. Ellis is especially a nightmare in the match-up zone with his long wingspan. More on him later.

 

The Bearcats probably won't stay with the match-up zone exclusively. Against Tulane earlier this year they used their superior athletes to play straight man to man while aggressively trapping the ball handler. Ball movement and spacing will be key if Purdue wants to negate that advantage.

 

In addition to slowing the game down and bogging down an opponent's offense, Cincinnati can make the big plays on defense as well. Both Ellis and backup big Coreontae DeBerry have good block percentages (8.2% and 10.6%, respectively; as a comparison, AJ Hammons' block percentage is 12.7%). They average as a team, seven steals per game, led by sophomore guard Troy Caupain's 1.2 stl/gm.

 

As a team, they really are limited by their offense. They average 66.7 points in their wins, and 52.7 points in their losses. Their highest scoring output in a win was 84 points against Temple, and their highest scoring output in a loss was 59, also against Temple. Their lowest scoring output in a win was 52 points against St. Francis (PA), and their lowest scoring output in a loss was 47, when they got pasted by VCU. They cannot keep up with teams that are able to score on them.

 

From an individual standpoint, their top three players are Octavius Ellis, Troy Caupain, and Farad Cobb.  Caupain is their point guard, and a very impressive player. He's averaging 9.5 points/gm (46.3 FG%, 43.1 3FG%, and 78.9 FT%). He's very efficient in his scoring as well; he hasn't taken over 10 shots since January 10th. He's a good rebounder for a guard, and a good passer as well. Cobb is a bit of scoring wildcard for Cincinnati. He averages 8.5 points/gm (38.6 FG%, 34.2 3FG%, 78.3 FT%). He shoots a worse percentage and at a higher volume than Caupain, but his 22 points on 9-14 shooting (4-7 from behind the 3-point line) performance against Tulsa shows that he does have it in him to put together an impressive offensive performance.

 

Ellis is their inside threat and statistical leader is most major categories. He is the guy you circle in red as their biggest threat. He's averaging 10 points/gm (57.8 FG%, 70.5 FT%), 7.3 rbs/gm, and 2.1 blk/gm. He's a tall, rangy defender, and although AJ Hammons will enjoy a 30lb weight advantage over him (and Haas, a 70lb advantage), his athleticism will negate some of that. He does turn the ball over at a high rate (his turnover percentage is 21.2%) and can be drawn into foul trouble, so Purdue will have to exploit that on both ends of the court. Their other big, Coreontae DeBerry has the size (6'10'', 270lbs) but not the production of Ellis.

 

(Ellis, by the way, has had an interesting career. From his involvement in the ugly brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier, to a nightclub incident, to a year spent at a community college. But he appears to have put that stuff behind him and has been having a productive - and out of the "off court spotlight"  - season.)

 

So what is the script for how Purdue can beat Cincinnati? A couple points:

  • Play good defense. You're not likely to score over 70 points, so keep their point total low as well.
  • Limit turnovers. In five of their 10 losses, opposing teams had less than 10 turnovers.
  • Limit their 3-point chances. In five of their 10 losses, they shot <= 20% from distance.
  • Frustrate them. In four of their 10 losses, they committed at least 1 technical foul.
  • Get them in foul trouble. In seven of their 10 losses, they committed at least 15 fouls. Ellis fouled out of two of their losses.
  • Hit your 3-pointers. In seven of their 10 losses, their opponent hit at least 30% of their 3-point attempts.

 

Some other thoughts. Match-up zones are tough to play against, but they can be beat. They are a zone that plays like man to man. They guard the man and the ball, and they set their position based on the offensive sets. The goal of a match-up zone is to confuse the offense, prevent them from running the plays they want to run, get them out of sync, and force them to make bad decisions. Beating a match-up zone requires communication, mental focus, and making smart decision. More practically speaking, there are some things Purdue can do to score on Cincinnati.

 

First and foremost, push the tempo to be closer to what Purdue is comfortable with. Create fast break opportunities off of turnovers and missed shots. Purdue features a number of players who can run with the ball in space, everyone from Jon Octeus to Basil Smotherman. Push the ball ahead of the defense and they won't be able to set up their defense how they like.

 

Second, in the half court, focus on screening the ball handler, use the dribble to penetrate the defense, look for cutters (basically, don't make the defense's job easier by standing around), and use Vince Edwards in the high post. Having a shooter dump the ball into Hammons and clearing out the rest of the offense on that side might help as well.

 

Third, hit the offensive glass hard. Purdue has a size advantage, and although the match-up zone is a combination defense, it can still be difficult for the defense to identify their block-out assignments and execute them. Second chance points will be a great benefit to this team.

 

Cincinnati is a well-coached team with a top-tier defense. However, they have enough weaknesses to be vulnerable to what would be, based on seeding, a minor first round upset. If Purdue hopes to take the win, they will have to stay disciplined, focus on the fundamentals of their offense, and exploit whatever few opportunities Cincinnati provides.

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