By Annie Ross
Ninth-seeded Cincinnati (22-10) takes on eighth-seeded Saint Joseph’s (27-7) tonight in the first round in Spokane, Wash.
The Hawks won the Atlantic 10 Tournament title to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 21st time and second time in three years.
Cincinnati ranks among the top teams in the nation in defense, allowing 62.9 points per game, and averaging five blocks per game. Opponents are shooting only 39 percent against them.
Coach Mick Cronin said the Bearcats have to rely on defense because they are not the type of program that draws the most athletic recruits.
“When you have to overachieve, you have to do it with defense,” Cronin said. “We can’t just rely on talent to win.”
The Bearcats will be able to rely on forward Gary Clark, who said he is fully recovered from an ankle injury.
Saint Joseph’s is led by forward Isaiah Miles, who averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds and was the league’s most improved player. Forward DeAndre Bembry, the A-10 player of the year, averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and more than four assists.
Coach Phil Martelli believes Miles is one of the most improved players in the country, after losing weight in the off-season.
“He led the country in foul outs last year,” Martelli said.
This year, “his basketball I.Q. is at the next level, where he’ll eventually end up,” Martelli said. Miles is a potent symbol for the improvement of the Hawks, who were just 13-18 in 2015, Martelli said.
Their 27-7 record is the second-best in program history, behind the 2004 squad that went 30-2 and reached the Elite Eight.
But Cincinnati presents a stifling defense and a size problem, Martelli said.
Cronin said he is hoping his Cincinnati team will get hot.
“Somebody is going to have to ride the hot hands of a few players” to win in the tournament, Cronin said. “I want to be known as coach of the team that makes a lot of shots.”
Miles said Saint Joseph’s will look for mismatches, and must play aggressive.
HAWKS IN THE DANCE: Saint Joseph’s has appeared in 20 previous NCAA Tournaments and are 18-24 in those games.
SPOKANE AGAIN: The Hawks’ last trip to Spokane was in 2014, when they fell behind 60-11 early in the second half against Gonzaga on the way to a 94-42 loss that was the worst in program history. “We get the cold shivers when we think of Spokane,” Martelli said.