Top 25 foes meet in AAC affair

11:36 AM, Jan 30, 2014   |    comments
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Louisville, KY ( - The top two teams in the American Athletic Conference will collide at the KFC Yum! Center on Thursday evening, as the 12th-ranked Louisville Cardinals play host to the 13th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats.

Mick Cronin's Bearcats bring a full head of steam into this contest, as they haven't lost a game since Dec. 14 against crosstown rival Xavier. Off to their best start since the 2001-02 campaign, the Bearcats have won 12 straight games to move to 19-2 on the year. That includes a perfect 8-0 mark in the AAC. The team kept its flawless league mark intact with Sunday's 80-76 road win at Temple.

The defending national champions are peaking as well, as they sit at 17-3 overall and a stellar 6-1 in conference play. Rick Pitino's Cardinals have won four straight and six of their last seven games and enter off an 86-47 rout of USF last week.

Louisville holds a 55-42 advantage in the all-time series, including wins in the last two meetings. The Cardinals are 31-15 against the Bearcats at home.

The Bearcats took a 10-point lead into halftime, but had to hold on against the pesky Owls last time out to remain unbeaten in conference play. Cincinnati shot a sizzling .547 from the field in the game, but Temple hung around thanks to a 24-15 edge in points from the free-throw line. All-American candidate Sean Kilpatrick shot 9-of-19 from the floor, including five 3-pointers en route to a team-high 29 points. Shaquille Thomas added 15 points in support, while Troy Caupain just missed a double-double with eight points and nine assists.

Cincinnati enjoys a +14.3 scoring margin on the year, fueled by some of the best defense in the nation. The Bearcats ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (56.9 ppg), holding foes under 40 percent shooting (.383). Kilpatrick has been the driving force at the offensive end, leading the conference at a hefty 19.1 ppg. Justin Jackson has stepped up with superior play down low, shooting .548 from the floor and averaging 11.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. A 6-foot-8 senior, Jackson ranks second in the nation in total blocks (71) and ranks seventh in blocks per game (3.38).

The Cardinals are a little more balanced, as they boast of the nation's largest scoring margin at +21.6. The team can obviously win games at either end of the floor, averaging 83.2 ppg, while allowing just 61.8. In addition, the team owns a +3.8 rebounding margin and an eye-popping +6.8 turnover margin. The scoring pool features five Cardinals in double figures. The team has its own All-American candidate in Russ Smith, who is second in the conference at 18.1 ppg. Smith is also tops on the team in assists (4.8 apg) and steals (38). Montrezl Harrell (12.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) has been a monster down low. Chris Jones (11.3 ppg) has missed time recently with a strained oblique, but is probable to return in this game. Luke Hancock (10.8 ppg) and Wayne Blackshear (10.2 ppg) round out the top threats.

Louisville showed its dominance at both ends of the floor against the Bulls last week in what turned into a 39-point romp. The Cardinals shot over 50 percent from the floor and hit 12 3-pointers in the win. Five Cardinals notch double digits in the scoring column, led by Blackshear's 16 points. Harrell posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Harrell matched that scoring total with 14 points of his own, while Smith and Georges Mathiang tallied 12 and 10 points, respectively.

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