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PREVIEW: Houston Cougars seek sixth straight victory over Cincinnati

FILE: The Houston Cougars mascot Shasta performs with the band. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
FILE: The Houston Cougars mascot Shasta performs with the band. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) (2019 Getty Images)

HOUSTON – Houston is riding a five-game winning streak along.

The Cougars, who have won 15 of their last 17 games, have climbed up to No. 21 in the latest AP Top 25 rankings. The team is also tied for first in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) standings.

Here’s a list of things to watch for as Houston travels to take on Cincinnati Saturday at 5 p.m. on ESPN2:

1. Houston must out rebound Cincinnati

The Cougars (17-4) are the best rebounding team in the AAC, ranking first in offensive and total rebounds per game. In addition, the team is second in total rebounds per game and the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in Division I men’s basketball, according to ESPN.com.

With Houston not being the best shooting team, rebounding their misses are vital to their success. Head coach Kelvin Sampson said that is what he is most proud of right now.

“We compete, and we play hard,” he said.

Cincinnati is the third-best team in the AAC in rebounds per game. While Houston out-rebounds their opponents by an average 10 per game.

Whichever team can control the glass will increase their chances of winning the game.

2. Force someone other than Jarron Cumberland to beat them

Jarron Cumberland, the reigning AAC player of the year, tested the NBA water before coming back for his senior season.

Cumberland is adjusting to the new system. First-year head coach John Brannen moved Cumberland to point guard. Cumberland leads the team with 14.9 points and 4.1 assists per game.

Cumberland is coming off of back-to-back games where he scored 20+ points, including his season-best 28 points in the win over SMU.

In all three games against Houston last season, Cumberland eclipsed 20 points. Houston won two of the first three games. In the AAC championship game, Cumberland dropped 33 points in a Cincinnati win. Cincinnati’s offense primarily goes through Cumberland, slowing him down is a major key.

3. Houston guards must play well

There is no question the depth of the guards for Houston is the strength of their team.

The top two leading scorers for the Cougars come off the bench, Caleb Mills and Quentin Grimes. Mills has developed as the go-to player down the stretch for Houston, which centers around the point guard play from Dejon Jarreau.

Since being inserted back into the starting lineup, Jarreau has performed like many people expected him to play, coming into the season. He was selected to the preseason first team in the AAC.

Nate Hinton, described as the heart and soul of the team by Sampson, leads the team in rebounds per game and has relentless energy on every possession.

“We have to shoot better," Sampson said about the team’s shooting consistency. “We get so many open looks, we just tell our kids to keep shooting them."

4. Continue to play great team defense

During the five-game winning streak, Houston has not allowed any opponents to score over 70 points. Teams are averaging 63.5 points per game against Houston. Cincinnati enters the matchup averaging 72.7 points a game.

The Cougars also average six block shots per game.

Since Sampson stepped on campus, the culture has focused on playing hard on the defensive end and rebounding the ball.

5. What we know about the Bearcats

Cincinnati has made the NCAA Tournament nine consecutive seasons.

The Bearcats (13-7) with a 6-2 AAC record currently stands in third in the conference. They’re have won three games in a row, plus five of its last six games.

Cincinnati is 9-1 on their home court this season and 4-0 in conference games.

Four players average double-digit points a game, including seven-footer Chris Vogt who came over with first-year head coach John Brannen from Northern Kentucky.

The Bearcats like to share the ball as a team, and it will take a joint effort for Houston to take them down.