Just one game into the 2013-14 regular season, and the Cincinnati Bearcats are already staring down their first true test in the form of the NC State Wolfpack.
All eyes will be on Clifton and Fifth Third Arena, as the Bearcats and Wolfpack tip off at 5pm ET, as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon. That’s right, the Bearcats landed the time slot directly ahead of two of the biggest regular season games this year: Michigan St v. Kentucky, and Kansas v. Duke. This means that anyone tuning in for the Kentucky game will get to see the end of the Bearcat game. This is huge for national exposure.
You better believe this game has been circled on Mick Cronin’s calendar, and that he has a game plan prepared to ensure those early Spartan/Wildcat fans will see the end of a Bearcat victory.
In my opinion, the key aspect of this game will be the NC State offense going against the Cincinnati defense. Although last year started with promise and ended with disappointment for NC State, their offense at times was unstoppable. The Wolfpack will have to venture into this season without last year’s stars CJ Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, and Scott Wood (among others). However, they return TJ Warren, who led the ACC in FG% last year and is poised for a breakout season. Also playing an early factor for the Wolfpack is shooting guard Desmond Lee. Lee is a JUCO transfer from New Mexico Junior College, where he averaged over 20 points per game last season. Anyone questioning if his scoring ability would transfer at the next level was silenced on opening night, as Lee poured in 24 points on 10-12 shooting against Appalachian State. Warren added 27. The Wolfpack scored 98. This offense is still dangerous.
However, the Bearcat defense is a different beast than Appalachian State. While the Wolfpack were helping themselves to 62% shooting against the Mountaineers, the Bearcats were stifling North Carolina Central to just under 40% shooting. You see the point I’m making? Something’s gotta give. These teams are largely yin and yang. In the past year, NC State has prided itself on a high flying offense, while the defense has struggled mightily at times. On the flip side, Mick Cronin’s squad has prided itself on suffocating defense, while Bearcat fans were left to beat our heads against the table watching last year’s offensive schemes.
As with many marquee match-ups in any sport, this one is going come down to which team does a better job of asserting itself. If the Bearcats can play their brand of lock-down defense, while exploiting NC State’s weak defense with consistent scoring, we might see Cincinnati run away with this one. However, if the Wolfpack offense gets clicking early and this one turns into a shootout, look for a disappointing night for Bearcat fans. Of course, rarely is anything that black and white, so this game will likely be a struggle down to the wire.
Prediction: TJ Warren and the NC State offense give Cincinnati problems early, but the Bearcats grinding defense and new-and-improved bench prove to be too much for the largely-inexperienced Wolfpack down the stretch. Sean Kilpatrick abuses NC State’s lackluster defense for 20+ points, and Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles give defensive nightmares to the Wolfpack. Just like in the second exhibition, we see more glimpses of greatness from Jermaine Lawrence. Cincinnati’s defensive rebounding proves to be a major key in limiting second chance opportunities. The Bearcats pull out the victory 72-60.