Bearcats and Tigers collide in key AAC affair

Cincinnati, OH ( - Two of the American Athletic Conference's best square off at Fifth Third Arena on Thursday night when the 15th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats play host to the 20th-ranked Memphis Tigers.

Memphis earned one of its most impressive victories of the season on Saturday by defeating nationally-ranked Louisville at home, 72-66, to complete the season sweep of the Cardinals. The Tigers, winners of three of their last four, are a stellar 22-7 overall this season and 11-5 in the AAC, while holding their own on the road at 5-4.

A few weeks ago, Cincinnati was in the driver's seat for the AAC regular- season title but has since dropped back-to-back games to Louisville (58-57) and Connecticut (51-45) to fall back to 24-5 overall and 13-3 in the league. The Bearcats are an outstanding 17-1 at home and can still assure themselves at least a share of the league title with wins in each of their last two games.

The Bearcats went into Memphis and took down the Tigers back on Jan. 4, 69-53, to snap a four-game winning streak by Memphis. Cincinnati leads the all-time series, 37-31.

The Tigers appeared down for the count late in the game against Louisville over the weekend, as they trailed by eight with less than five minutes to go, but they finished the contest on a 15-1 surge to capture the outstanding six- point victory. They shot an impressive 49 percent from the field while holding the Cardinals to less than 40 percent shooting. Michael Dixon Jr. shot 4-of-5 from the floor and a perfect 9-of-9 at the free-throw line for 18 points off the bench. Geron Johnson (15 points), Austin Nichols (14) and Joe Jackson (12) were also productive scorers, and Shaq Goodwin hauled in 10 rebounds.

Memphis has leaned on an outstanding offensive attack this season, as it shoots 48.6 percent from the field for 78.6 ppg, which has been able to successfully support a modest scoring defense (69.9 ppg). The squad also owns positive margins in terms of rebounding (+2.9) and turnovers (+1.7), but it's not without weaknesses, as it sports lackluster percentages from 3-point range (.338) and the free-throw line (.655). Jackson pours in 14.0 ppg and also leads the team in assists (4.6 apg) and steals (48). Goodwin (12.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) shoots 58.7 percent from the field, Dixon (12.0 ppg) has drained 44 3- pointers at a 39.6 percent clip, while Johnson (9.2 ppg), Chris Crawford (8.9 ppg) and Nichols (8.9 ppg) round out the deep squad.

Locked up in a low-scoring battle with UConn in their most recent game, the Bearcats fell behind by 10 at midway through the second half and could never recover, as they shot a woeful 27.1 percent from the floor and lost the turnover battle by a significant 20-10 margin. The poor offensive effort spoiled a great defensive performance, as they held UConn to only 31.3 percent shooting from the field. Sean Kilpatrick was the lone player to finish in double figures in the setback with 16 points, although he was just 4-of-16 from the field and committed seven turnovers.

Although Cincinnati's offense has been suspect all season long, scoring just 68.4 ppg on 42.3 percent shooting, it has cemented itself as one of the best teams in the country by playing outstanding defense, as it holds opposing teams to just 39.1 percent field-goal shooting for 57.2 ppg, with the latter ranking third best in the nation. The team also lives in the positive in terms of rebounding (+5.0) and turnovers (+3.2). Kilpatrick is one of the Big East's best guards, averaging 20.3 ppg on 85.1 percent free-throw shooting. Justin Jackson (11.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is an elite defender with 3.0 bpg and 1.7 spg.