Last year’s renewal of the Wichita State-Cincinnati basketball rivalry lived up to the hype with two games that came down to the final possession and decided the American Athletic Conference championship.
A third chapter will be added on Saturday on a 1 p.m. national television broadcast on CBS at Koch Arena, and despite the difference in records, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin is bracing his Bearcats (15-3, 4-1 AAC) for another war with the Shockers (8-8, 1-3).
“Their competitive spirit is impressive for a bunch of guys that were thrown together last spring,” Cronin said. “They’ve become a team. Not a surprise with Gregg Marshall coaching them. They may have some games where they struggle to make shots, but they don’t struggle to play with heart and they don’t struggle to play hard.”
WSU has momentum after ending a winless streak that spanned four games and 28 days, the longest in the last decade in the program, with a 75-67 victory over conference-leading Central Florida on Wednesday.
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The Shockers vanquished their second-half demons by closing out a victory against a quality team after squandering halftime leads against Temple and Houston. The win allowed for an emotional release for WSU, a program not accustomed to going so long in between wins.
The players laughed, sang and danced with Marshall, even stealing the show with some dance moves of his own. It was a celebration perhaps like any other by WSU for a January win. But for a young team still forging its identity, it needed something to celebrate. And now that they’ve found their confidence, they’re not ready to give it up — even against another likely NCAA Tournament team.
“We should take no step back,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “We should move forward, win or lose, we should always show that we are a good basketball team. This just shows right here that we can beat anybody.”
McDuffie is in the midst of one of the best scoring streaks in the Marshall era. He’s scored in double figures 15 straight games, the second-longest streak under Marshall, only behind Cleanthony Early’s stretch of 19 games during the 2013-14 season. McDuffie’s scoring average of 19.6 points ranks second in the conference.
The Shockers will need McDuffie near his peak like he was against UCF, when he scored a game-high 23 points, played inspired defense and drilled big-time shots. Cincinnati has its own star player in 6-5 junior Jarron Cumberland, who is coming off a career-high, 34-point performance on Tuesday.
Cincinnati (15-3) is on pace to extend its streak of eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances with at least 22 wins, but has shown some vulnerabilities. The Bearcats lost 73-71 at East Carolina, needed overtime to beat Tulsa and Connecticut and pulled away down the stretch against South Florida earlier this week.
Cronin knows it won’t be any easier heading to Koch Arena, where WSU has won 77 of 82 games the last six seasons. No team has won back-to-back games at Koch Arena since Southern Illinois did in 2009.
“It’s what it should be everywhere,” Cronin said. “They don’t just come out when their team is great. They’re out there trying to help their program in the game and get them through a year where they’re in rebuilding mode to reestablish who they are. You can see it watching them. It’s like their fan base feels like they’re part of that team and they’re going to help them try to win.”
Cincinnati at Wichita State
Records: UC 15-3, 4-1 AAC; WSU 8-8, 1-3
When: 1:07 p.m. Saturday
Where: Koch Arena (10,506), Wichita
TV: CBS (KWCH, Ch. 12)
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
About Cincinnati: The Bearcats won 31 games last season and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They were picked to finish second in the preseason coaches’ poll... Junior wing Jarron Cumberland averages 17.8 points, fifth-best in the AAC, while point guard Justin Jenifer leads the conference and ranks second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.82)... Cincinnati won last year’s meeting at Koch Arena, 62-61, to spoil WSU’s senior day and deny the Shockers a share of the conference title... The Bearcats are one of just five teams to have won at Koch Arena in the last six years. No team since Southern Illinois in 2009 has won back-to-back games at Koch Arena... Cincinnati leads the all-time series 19-12, although the two teams have split the 16 meetings in Wichita.
About Wichita State: The Shockers will try to take down a conference leader for the second time in a week. After handing UCF its first conference loss, WSU now faces Cincinnati, who is in a three-way tie for first at 4-1... The Shockers have played the 18th-toughest schedule in the country, according to the NCAA’s NET... Senior Markis McDuffie is the second-leading scorer in the AAC at 19.6 points. He’s scored in double digits in 15 straight games, the second-longest streak at WSU under Gregg Marshall... After making less than 66 percent of free throws during the non-conference slate, WSU is hitting a league-best 85.9 percent after four games... The Shockers are playing their third straight game against a KenPom top-50 defense. Cincinnati’s opponents are shooting less than 40 percent from the field, which ranks 34th nationally.