Cincinnati, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - A Top 25 showdown is on tap at Fifth Third Arena on Saturday afternoon, as the seventh-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats play host to the 11th-ranked Louisville Cardinals in a key American Athletic Conference clash.
The defending national champions have been on a roll in the month of February. Rick Pitino's Cardinals closed out January with a 69-66 loss to this same Cincinnati squad, but haven't lost since, winning five straight games. Louisville moved to 11-2 in the AAC with Tuesday's 80-54 rout of USF, good for second in the conference standings.
The only team Louisville is chasing is Mick Cronin's Bearcats. Cincinnati suffered its first league loss of the season two weeks ago at SMU (76-55), but has won back-to-back games since, topping Houston (73-62) and most recently, UCF (77-49) to improve to 13-1 in league play.
Louisville holds a 55-43 lead over Cincinnati in the series, but it is the Bearcats seeking the regular-season sweep and in the process move one step closer to the conference crown.
Louisville jumped out to a big lead at the half, leading USF 46-28 and never let the Bulls back into the game. The Cardinals forced 20 USF turnovers in the game and received a balanced scoring effort with four players notching double figures in the lopsided win. All-American candidate Russ Smith led the way with 19 points. Luke Hancock poured in 16 points, while Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier tacked on 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The Cardinals have enjoyed strong play at both ends of the floor this season, averaging a healthy 83.0 ppg, while limiting foes to just 61.6. In addition, the team holds a +3.6 rebounding margin, while ranking second in the nation in turnover margin (+6.9). Smith is certainly a viable candidate for AAC Player of the Year, pacing Louisville in scoring (17.8 ppg), assists (4.5 apg) and steals (47). Harrell has been strong up front, shooting over 60 percent from the floor and averaging 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Hancock (12.2 ppg), Chris Jones (10.3 ppg) and Wayne Blackshear (9.7 ppg) provide even more firepower.
The Bearcats know a thing or two about defensive tenacity as well. Cincinnati ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense (57.4 ppg), holding foes under 40 percent shooting overall (.393), while boasting of a +4.0 turnover margin. Like Louisville, Cincinnati is led by its own All-American candidate in Sean Kilpatrick. The 6-foot-4 senior leads the conference in scoring at 20.2 ppg, fueled by his 75 3-pointers to date and an impressive .855 from the free-throw line (141-of-165). Justin Jackson provides frontcourt balance at 11.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 3.15 bpg.
Cincinnati effectively decided its game against UCF in the first half, blowing the Knights out in the first 20 minutes by taking a 40-18 lead into intermission, before putting it in cruise control the rest of the way. Kilpatrick drained six 3-pointers in the game and led all scorers with 23 points. Jackson added 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in the rout.