The eighth seeded Saint Joseph’s Hawks start dancing on Friday night as they are pitted against the ninth seeded Cincinnati Bearcats in the West region of the bracket. At this point, the Hawks should be the favorite for this game, at least on paper. Their overall record, record against top 25 teams, and RPI ranking all favorites the Hawks when compared to the Bearcats. But to overlook this Cincinnati team based on that alone could leave some brackets busted, as the Bearcats have healthy wins against the likes of SMU, VCU, Tulsa, and UConn on the season and have earned appearances on the Associated Press ranking as high as 17th.
This game should shape up to be a defensive showdown, as St. Joe's defense has enjoyed success this season, ranked 20th in the nation in opponent three-point percentage and 75th in opponent field goal percentage. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has a lockdown defense of their own that held opponents to 63 points per game, 10th best in the country and boasts a defensive rating per 100 possessions of 93.2, 9th best.
With defense being the name of the game in Friday’s matchup, St. Joe’s will need to exploit favorable frontcourt matchups offensively. First and foremost, DeAndre’ Bembry will be looking to shine in the spotlight of the tournament. The A-10 player of the year has been a pillar that St. Joe's has relied on to play almost the entire game and be consistently productive throughout, as he is averaging 17.3 points 7.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on the season. Bembry will likely be matched up with Cincinnati’s freshman forward Jacob Evans. Evans averages nearly eight points and four rebounds in 24 minutes per game. Matched up against a freshman, Bembry should be looking to facilitate the Hawks’ offense by getting into the paint, then using his skills as a forward to either score inside or draw the defense’s help and kick it out to a shooter.
The next player that the Hawks will be looking to have a strong game from is Isaiah Miles. The senior forward averages 18.4 points per game and 8.1 rebounds on 53% from the field and 39% from three. Miles has been on a scoring tear in the past couple games, scoring 26 points against both Dayton and VCU in the A10 semifinal and championship games. He will likely be matched up with Cincinnati’s sophomore forward Gary Clark. Not only is Clark averaging nearly a double double on the season (10 points and nine rebounds) but he is also carries the best defensive rating (90.1) per 100 possessions for the Bearcats. For Isaiah Miles to get the better of Clark, he will want do some work from beyond the three point line, where he is shooting 39% on the season, and avoid trying to overpower Clark, who blocks 1.5 shots per game. Unfortunately, Clark sizes up really well with Miles in this matchup, so the St. Joe’s senior will need to use more of his perimeter skills tomorrow night.
The difference maker for Cincinnati could be senior forward Octavius Ellis, who averages 10 points and 7.7 rebounds on the season. Ellis is two inches taller than any of the Hawk’s rotation players and will be looking to get the better of the St. Joe’s freshman forward Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva. While Ellis will have the upper hand in this matchup both statistically and physically, St. Joe’s entire team defense will look to assist Oliva with Ellis. St. Joe's does a great job of double-teaming the post and if they can continue this trend against both Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis, the Bearcats may struggle to put up many points in this game, as they are not overly proficient scoring from the perimeter.
These three matchups will be telling of the outcome of Friday’s game. If St. Joe’s can continue to get dominant offensive production from DeAndre Bembry, start Isaiah Miles off strong scoring, and continue the great team effort on defense, the Hawks should stay dancing. However, if Cincinnati’s interior tandem of Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis get rolling offensively for the Bearcats and get the Hawks frontcourt into early foul trouble, the Hawks will be lucky to survive the first round.
Photo: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament