Memphis, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The top-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats will begin their quest for the American Athletic Conference Tournament crown on Thursday evening, as they match up with the ninth-seeded UCF Knights in quarterfinal-round action at FedExForum.
Cincinnati, which earned the No. 1 seed by coin flip after tying Louisville for the inaugural AAC regular-season title, enters the postseason at 26-5 and 15-3 in league play. They won each of their last two games, including a 70-66 escape-act at Rutgers in the finale. Last year, while a member of the Big East, the Bearcats were defeated by Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, 62-43. They have not won a league tournament since 2004 (Conference USA).
UCF clipped eighth-seeded Temple, 94-90, in a double-overtime marathon on Wednesday night to advance past the first round, which Cincinnati missed with a bye. The Knights are still only 13-17 overall, which includes their 4-14 mark against the rest of the conference during the regular season.
Cincinnati won both games between these teams this season, improving to 3-0 all-time against the Knights. The winner this time faces either Memphis or Connecticut in the semifinals.
UCF was able to push past Temple last night thanks in large part to the efforts of Isaiah Sykes, who poured in a career-high 36 points and also collected nine rebounds. Tristan Spurlock also made major contributions, tallying 19 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
Sykes (17 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.6 apg) is certainly one of the better guards in the AAC, a league chock full of talented backcourt players. His efforts this season were recognized earlier this week when he was named an All-AAC Second Team member. Sykes leads the Knights in several categories, including scoring, rebounding and assists, while also logging 1.6 steals per game. Behind Sykes are Spurlock (11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Calvin Newell (10.1 ppg), who are the other double-digit scorers on the roster.
The Bearcats got a real test from Rutgers, the seventh-seed in this tournament, in the regular-season finale, but held on for the victory. Sean Kilpatrick poured in a game-high 24 points for Cincinnati, which connected on 45.5 percent from the floor, compared to the 40 percent effort turned in by the Scarlet Knights.
Kilpatrick (20.9 ppg) has been incredible this season and is one of the real contenders for AAC Player of the Year. He already scooped up a spot on the All-AAC First Team after leading the conference in scoring while shooting 42.3 percent from the field. Justin Jackson (11 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.8 bpg) hasn't gotten the same amount of publicity, but his work on defense as the league's leader in blocks can't be understated. With Jackson anchoring the squad in the paint, the Bearcats have continued their run as one of the better defensive teams in the country, ranking fourth in points allowed (58.4 ppg) and 17th in opponent field goal percentage (.394).