The conference’s biggest game to date is upon us as conference leader Cincinnati travels to the KFC Yum! Center to butt heads with conference favorite Louisville. The Bearcats have won 12 straight games and are undefeated in the conference entering tonight’s action. The Cardinals have a home loss to Memphis earlier this month that they can’t wash away but have won their last four games including an easy win on the road over Connecticut. The two teams are similar in that they both rely on their defense, both have potential All-American candidates spearheading their offense, and both have questions about whether or not they have the complementary pieces in place to make a deep run in March. Needless to say, tonight should be an exciting night for college basketball fans, especially those who are partial to the AAC. Let’s take a look at three keys to success for each team.
- Get production from Justin Jackson - The senior sprained his ankle and only played six minutes in Sunday’s win over Temple but the Bearcats’ defensive lynchpin was cleared to play as of this morning and that’s really good news because without him, Cincinnati would be facing a steep uphill battle. After consistency questions during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Jackson has been crucial to Cincinnati’s recent success, especially on the defensive end where his versatility and ability to play much larger than his listed height have plugged a major hole in the frontcourt. It is probably wishful thinking to expect Jackson to be 100 percent, but the team needs him to play well on both ends of the floor if they are going to compete with the deeper, more experienced, and more talented Cardinals.
- Don’t allow second-chance opportunities - The Bearcats are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country but ironically, they also struggle mightily to keep opponents off the offensive glass as well. In the team’s closer than expected win against lowly Temple, the Bearcats allowed the Owls — perhaps the conference’s worst rebounding team — to snatch 12 offensive rebounds and out-rebound them overall 32-31. They survived because they tightened up when they needed to and because Temple’s defense is terrible, but the Cardinals are a different animal. Louisville is 20th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and they are a far more efficient offensive outfit, which means they will be able to do more with their second-chance opportunities than Temple was able to do. Jackson’s availability should help in this area, but the Bearcats will still be at a disadvantage in terms of size, so they will need to execute for 40 minutes on the boards.
- Someone not named Sean Kilpatrick needs to step up offensively - Short of dressing Kilpatrick up as teammate Jermaine Sanders, it will be tough for coach Mick Cronin to find a game plan that will consistently free Kilpatrick up offensively. Kilpatrick will get his looks and Cincinnati will make a concerted effort to get the ball in his hands, but Louisville isn’t stupid and they know if they can shut down Kilpatrick, their chances of winning will rise exponentially. Ideally the Bearcats would count on Jackson to shoulder some of the scoring load but with lingering questions about his health, Shaquille Thomas or Titus Rubles or Troy Caupain will need to step up and keep the Cardinals’ defense honest. Thomas’ athleticism presents intriguing matchup issues and he was great against the Owls but this is a much bigger game on the road and the redshirt sophomore will find the sledding much tougher this time around. The Bearcats don’t need a breakout offensive performance, but they do need someone or a combination of players to step up and give Kilpatrick some help.
- Get out to a quick start - The KFC Yum! Center will be a raucous environment tonight and the Bearcats simply do not have the firepower to come from behind against good teams, especially on the road. If the Cardinals can play within themselves to start the game, get easy buckets, and open up an early lead, it could be game over quickly. A fast start will give them momentum, it will get the noisy crowd involved, and it will force an offensively handicapped outfit to get out of their preferred pace of play and start pushing the tempo. Make a few early three-pointers, find easy buckets in transition, and force some turnovers and the Cardinals will be able to relax. But allow Cincinnati to hang around and folks could be in for a nail-biting finish.
- Luke Hancock needs to stay hot - The popular “What in the world has happened to Luke Hancock?” question has been asked less and less recently as the senior has scored in double-figures in the team’s last seven games, but now is not the time for him to rest on his laurels. The Bearcats are easily the best and most physical defensive team the Cardinals have played thus far and he will need to assert himself offensively if Louisville wants to take control of this game. He still hasn’t quite regained his shooting touch but if he can get to the free-throw line and even just keep the Bearcats’ defense honest from behind the three-point-arc he will free up the team’s guards to penetrate easier and give the team’s big men more room to operate on the low block.
- Steady play from whoever is handling the point guard duties - Regular starter Chris Jones will be in uniform tonight for the first time since injury his oblique in the team’s win over SMU, but he will be coming off the bench and freshman Terry Rozier will get to make his fourth straight start. Rozier has been steady in Jones’ absence, especially when it comes to taking care of the ball, and that will be especially important for the Cardinals tonight. The Bearcats’ offense uses the turnovers created by its defense to get easy baskets. Jones and Rozier don’t need to combine for 30 points and 22 assists tonight. They need to take care of the basketball, manage the offense, and prevent Cincinnati’s defense from wreaking havoc. If they can do that, Louisville should prevail.