A smirk came across Gregg Marshall’s face before the final possession. It’s not hard to guess what he was thinking. It was, after all, a Sunday afternoon in March in which Charles Koch Arena was hosting a top-15 matchup with a conference championship on the line. After years of spending the first Sunday of March in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, often with the ultimate stakes, the Shockers now had the best game on the national slate, with high stakes but house money.
The Shockers were getting the opportunity that would have never come their way in the MVC. They had one of the country’s best teams in their building in March, a serious perk for moving from their long-time home to the American Athletic Conference.
So it was easy to see why, with a chance to win on the final possession, Marshall was smiling, even if that grin wouldn’t survive beyond the final buzzer.
The 11th-ranked Shockers got three shots on their final possession, but none found their mark as 10th-ranked Cincinnati held on to win the game, 62-61, and its first outright AAC regular season championship.
It was the regular season title game that before the season looked inevitable and just a few weeks ago looked unlikely, with the Shockers sitting on three league losses and the Bearcats none before Cincy lost at Houston and then at home to Wichita State to set up a great final Sunday of the regular season.
It was a game, while not beautifully played, that delivered on the preseason promise.
Ultimately, it was a game played at the Bearcats’ pace and in their style. Cincinnati just dictated terms too often for the Shockers to ever gain any significant upper hand on their home court.
Wichita State, one of the country’s better 3-point shooting teams, made just 6 of 23 (26.1 percent) attempts from beyond the arc. Overall, the Shockers converted at just a 40.7 clip at home. They had little luck on the glass either with just nine offensive rebounds on their 32 misses.
Cincinnati didn’t fare much better as it shot just 39.7 percent from the floor and made 6 of 21 from 3, but committed just five turnovers and grabbed 11 boards, giving them just enough extra possessions to narrowly edge the Shockers.
With Memphis and Connecticut not living up to their respective historical strengths, the Bearcats and Shockers are without a doubt not only the standard bearers for the AAC but the only viable national names for the conference right now. That’s a lot of pressure for the matchups between these two teams to live up to the hype for the rare time the AAC has the national college basketball stage. Sunday delivered.
How these two teams will manage outside the league once NCAA tournament play starts remains to be seen.
The Shockers’ defense has been suspect all year, and Cincinnati just showed their offense, that’s been among the elite nationally all year, can be neutralized with the right game plan, roster and mentality. If Wichita State can’t get help for Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris, both of whom scored 16 points Sunday, that offense suddenly look as potent.
For the Bearcats, the question simply will be shotmaking. Their offense isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s heavily dependent on second-chances for a team who does not count accuracy among its virtues. The defense is going to keep Cincinnati in every game, but eventually the offense will be called upon to get them over the finish line.
Those, though, are problems for another time, though that date is fast approaching. Immediately, the issue is hoping we get a rubber match on a neutral floor between these two teams in the AAC tournament.
That will leave plenty of people smiling.