Armed with their highest preseason ranking since 2003, the 21st ranked Cincinnati Bearcats open its college basketball season tonight when they host the defending SWAC champion Alabama State Hornets. Tip-off is slated for 7 PM ET from Fifth Third Arena. 

The ASU game is the first of four contests the Bearcats will participate in as part of the Global Sports Challenge this season. The NCAA event includes home contests with Jacksonville State (Nov. 15), Northwestern State (Nov. 21) and Marshall (Nov. 25).

Yancy GatesCincinnati will be helped by a non-conference schedule that is flush with home games including six straight to start the year. The Bearcats will be looking to extend a 21-1 SU run against non-conference teams. Last year they went 9-0 against non-league competition winning by an average margin of victory of 21.7.

Last add Bearcats at home; UC owns a record of 89-21 (.810) in season openers, including a 78-10 (.886) mark at home. Once they hit the road, Cincinnati’s preseason schedule gets considerably tougher with seven games slated against Top 25 competition.

Back to the Dance

Cincinnati ended a six-year NCAA drought earning their first appearance at the dance thanks to a 26-9 SU & 16-14 ATS record including 11-7 in the Big East. The Bearcats beat Missouri before losing in the second round to eventual national champion U-Conn. Now with four starters and seven letter winners back from the talented 2010-2011 squad, they’re favored to make it back-to-back appearances in the tournament. In the Big East preseason poll, Cincinnati was tabbed for a fifth- place finish.

Getting defensive

The Bearcats led the conference in fewest points allowed per game (59.6) and were ninth in the nation. That will be their bread and butter again this year. UC’s defense was in mid-season form against its two exhibition opponents as they held McGill University and Northern Kentucky to an average of 49.5 points per game.

On offense, Yancy Gates who paced Cincinnati with 11.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game returns along with Dion Dixon added (11.6 points per game),Cashmere Wright (8.9) and Sean Kilpatrick (9.7).

Hornets humbled

Alabama State dropped its season opener to Marshall 67-49. Ivory White and Kenderek Washington scored 11 points apiece to lead the Hornets. Alabama State shot just 37 percent, were outrebounded 40-27 and committed 22 turnovers.

The Hornets were picked to capture the SWAC for the second straight year in the conference’s preseason poll. White was chosen as the preseason defensive player of the year although it was Tramaine Butler who led them in steals last season. Alabama State has three starters back from last year’s team that went 17-18 overall but won the conference tournament and an NCAA berth. The Hornets have lost 13 in a row to ranked opponents.

The coaches

Mick Cronin is in his sixth season at Cincinnati where he’s posted an 87-77 record. Overall he’s 156-101 in his nine year head coaching career.

Lewis Jackson is in his seventh season with Alabama State where he’s gone 97-92.

This will be the first meeting between the two but Cincinnati holds a 10-0 record all-time against teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference with victories against Alcorn State (2-0), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-0), Jackson State (1-0), Mississippi Valley State (1-0), Prairie View A&M (1-0), Southern (1-0) and Texas Southern (3-0). 

Harvey’s Take: Cincinnati has the benefit of playing its first six games at home and that will give them a huge advantage over the cupcakes that will dominate they’ll face during their six-game home stand. I’ll be shocked in Alabama State scores more than 50 points in the game, so in NCAA basketball picks look for the Bearcats win big.