The two best teams in the American Athletic Conference will square off tonight in a meeting that will ultimately decide the rest of the regular season in the conference.
The defending champion Louisville Cardinals are at 17-3 and hitting on all cylinders with four straight wins over conference foes. The Cincinnati Bearcats, on the other hand, have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation, riding a 12-game winning streak while holding 12 of their previous 13 opponents to less than 70 points.
Tonight’s game will be played at Louisville with a chance for the Cardinals to close in on the Bearcats, who are unbeaten in conference play, and narrow their lead to just half a game for first place.
For the Bearcats, this would be one of the most impressive wins of the season in the country if they can pull out a road win. The Bearcats, although they have the leading scorer in the conference in Sean Kilpatrick, may not have second leading scorer Justin Jackson in the lineup after the forward suffered an ankle injury against Temple.
Replacing Jackson will be no easy task for a team accustomed to low-scoring games rather than offensive shootouts. Jackson is one of the elite defenders in the nation with 71 blocks on the year, seven rebounds per game and just under two steals per game for a defense that is in the top half of the nation.
Louisville has moved on after the dismissal of Chane Behanan and the redshirting of Kevin Ware. Russ Smith, although still prone to stretches of sloppy basketball, is back to the Smith of 2012-13 where he helped the Cardinals win the national championship. Supporting Smith are Luke Hancock, who was recently promoted to the starting lineup, Wayne Blackshear, who has thrived coming off the bench, and Montraze Harrell, who sooner rather than later will get NBA Draft evaluators’ attention.
Tonight is the ultimate contrast of styles as Louisville wants to score in the 80s with Cincinnati wanting the game in the 50s. Watch tonight for the first five minutes of the game. If Louisville gets off to a fast start at home Cincinnati will be in major trouble, but if Cincinnati can hang in with Louisville this game will go down to the wire.
With a second matchup between the teams in Cincinnati on Feb. 22, this game could either pull the Bearcats away from the pack or bring teams like Louisville and the Memphis Tigers back into the equation.