The first-place cushion No. 15 Cincinnati enjoyed for most of the regular season has eroded. The Bearcats head into the final week needing two more wins to earn their first American Athletic Conference title.
And that means getting their offense in order – fast – heading into Thursday’s home game against a 20th-ranked Memphis team coming off one of its biggest wins of the season.
The Bearcats (24-5, 13-3) have lost three of their last five, including the past two to Louisville and Connecticut. With two games left, they’re tied for first place with the No. 11 Cardinals, who were handed a 72-66 loss by Memphis (22-7, 11-5) on Saturday.
Cincinnati and Louisville both have tough finishes. One stumble could decide it all.
"Playing for a conference championship in your last two games, that’s big," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said before practice Tuesday. "Then you go to the conference tournament that’s one-and-out, and the NCAA tournament is one-and-out.
"So you’ve got to be sharp this time of year or it’s going to cost you. There’s a lot on the line each night out."
It’s likely the last time Cincinnati and Louisville – longtime rivals in various conferences – will compete against each other for a conference title. The Cardinals head to the ACC next season. They split the season series, each winning on the road.
Cincinnati closes its home schedule against Memphis, which has won three of four, before the season ends Saturday at Rutgers. Louisville plays at No. 18 Southern Methodist before finishing at home against No. 19 UConn.
If both of the Ohio River rivals stumble, SMU could move in and take the title. Even though the Tigers are virtually out of the chase, they’re pleased with where they stand and feeling confident following the upset of Louisville.
"This year we’ve had some slipups we shouldn’t have had, but that happens," said senior Michael Dixon, who had 18 points Saturday for his 10th straight game in double figures. "I think that going forward we’re in pretty good shape."
The Bearcats won 69-53 at Memphis on Jan. 11, part of a 15-game winning streak that vaulted them into the top 10. The victory came in the first meeting between the schools in just over five years and ended a four-game losing streak in the series for Cincinnati.
The rematch comes on the night when the Bearcats honor senior starters Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson. Kilpatrick will leave as the school’s second-leading scorer, trailing only Oscar Robertson.
"I’m still kind of lost for words," Kilpatrick said Tuesday. "It probably won’t hit me until after the game, maybe a little before when I’m crying a little bit."
If the Bearcats hope to continue playing deep into March, they have to fix their offense. They’ve scored 57 or fewer points during their last three losses, going long stretches without making a field goal.
The two biggest problems: poor shooting and lousy ball handling. Cincinnati shot 35 percent, 29 percent and 27 percent from the field during the three losses, going a combined 15 for 64 from beyond the arc.
The Bearcats may have a tough time turning it around against Memphis, which forced Louisville into shooting 39.7 percent overall and 17.4 percent from long range (4 for 23). The Tigers have held their last five opponents to a combined 40.1 percent from the field.
Cincinnati also turned the ball over 19, 13 and 20 times in the three recent losses. Their 33 turnovers in the last two are their most during a two-game span, with the 20 against UConn tying a season high.
"The common denominator in all three losses is turnovers," Cronin said. "Our turnover situation has been horrific."
The solution has been to intensify practices to get their offense ready. The Bearcats are accustomed to applying defensive pressure, but haven’t handled it all that well themselves.
"So we have got to practice against the type of defense we saw against SMU, UConn and Louisville," Cronin said. "And we’ve got to do a better job of simulating that type of defense when we play 5-on-5 offense in practice.
"Sometimes it’s too easy for our veteran guys to score against our younger guys in our practice sessions. So we’ve talked about that and we’ve made some moves to try to rectify that in practice, just so that it’s more realistic."
The younger players also have talked about stepping up their game down the stretch.
"It’s something we’ve been working for all year long, and now we’re in control of our destiny and able to really do this," Kilpatrick said. "It’s something the young guys have been really focusing on and thinking about."