Scan the 2011 NCAA Tournament Bracket and you will probably find no greater matchup of contrasts on the 2011 NCAA Tournament schedule than No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Missouri in Washington, D.C., the last game to tip on Thursday. (It airs at 9:45 p.m. Thursday on TNT.) But will the matchup of the rugged, plodding Bearcats and the Tigers' breakneck "40 minutes of hell" produce a good game, or will one style win out?
Cincinnati's making its NCAA Tournament return: this is the first time since 2005, when Bob Huggins was in town, that the Bearcats have been in the hunt for a national championship in March. That said, this Mick Cronin-coached team isn't exactly on par with the best in Cincy history. They defend like madmen (15th nationally in defensive efficiency) and slow games to molasses marches (289th in tempo), but there's not a lot of offensive firepower to make those traits truly assets. Four Bearcats shoot over 35% from three-point range, including diminutive point guard Cashmere Wright, who has one of the better names in college basketball, but it's freshman Sean Kilpatrick who keys the Cincy offense. He's played just over half of the possible minutes, but taken more than 26% of the Bearcats' shots, compiling impressive shooting and efficiency numbers to go with it.
Missouri plays strong defense, too, but theirs is partly predicated on tempo: coach Mike Anderson's "40 minutes of hell" press is drawn from his experience as a Nolan Richardson disciple — and part of the reason rumors abound about him filling Arkansas' vacancy after this NCAA Tournament. The Tigers force turnovers with the ninth-best frequency in the country, and block shots with surprising frequency thanks to Laurence Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe. That frenzy on defense fuels a balanced offense that can stagnate when the turnovers aren't coming: Seven Tigers, including brothers Phil and Matt Pressey, have usage rates of over 19%, but only Bowers, Ratliffe, and Marcus Denmon make more than 50% of their shots. Good omen: the Missouri press tends to create havoc for the Tigers' first NCAA Tournament foe: in each of their last two seasons, Missouri won its opening round game. And Missouri's resume, while devoid of almost anything to recommend the Tigers as a team that can hit the road, is not that of a No. 11 seed.
Star Watch: Missouri's Marcus Denmon is the most efficient player on either team. He takes and makes good shots (45% on threes) and handles the ball well, which has earned him the 20th spot nationally in Offensive Rating, and the fourth in Turnover Percentage. If Missouri's going to make a deep run in this NCAA Tournament, it will be on Denmon to come up with some spectacular performances.
Prediction: Missouri's press confounds and produces double-digit Cincy turnovers, but a cold streak makes it close late. Kim English, Missouri's absurdly likable guard, snaps out of his slump in a game near his Baltimore home, getting key buckets late to secure the upset for the Tigers, 74-71.
Need help picking your bracket? Check out SB Nation's full 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket predictions, picking every game of March Madness, or our region by region breakdowns for the East Region, West Region, Southeast Region, and Southwest Region.
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