(AP) – Louisville’s four-game winning streak is a good sign that things are falling into place for the Cardinals.
Thursday night’s American Athletic Conference showdown with No. 13 and first-place Cincinnati will determine if the 12th-ranked Cardinals can maintain their momentum against a Bearcats squad that’s on a 12-game roll but might be without its best defensive player.
An already important game for these rivals carries even more weight as Louisville (17-3, 6-1) aims to draw closer to Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0). The Cardinals will be playing their first game in eight days; the Bearcats are coming off Sunday’s hard-earned 80-76 victory at Temple.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s main goal is continuing a defensive upswing that has held the Cardinals’ last four AAC opponents below 37 percent shooting and forced an average of 16.3 turnovers.
"We have gained a lot of strength in terms of being able to change our defenses and recognize when we should change our defenses," Pitino said Wednesday.
Since allowing Memphis to shoot 51 percent in its lone conference loss, Louisville has clamped down in beating SMU, Houston, Connecticut and South Florida. The Cardinals have allowed those four to combine for 75 of 215 from the floor (35 percent).
Louisville is also clicking offensively behind a changed lineup with senior Luke Hancock starting alongside sophomore Montrezl Harrell. Both have scored in double digits the past two games with Harrell notching four double-doubles in the past five.
Former starter Wayne Blackshear is also providing a much-needed spark off the bench for the Cardinals. After struggling to score because of foul trouble, the junior has averaged 16 points and shot 65.4 percent over the past three games.
Louisville’s backcourt depth could get an added boost with guard Chris Jones expected to return after missing the past three games with a strained oblique muscle. Though freshman Terry Rozier has been solid starting beside senior Russ Smith and had nine points, five assists and three steals in last Wednesday’s 86-47 thrashing of USF, the coach said the Cardinals "need Jones desperately to be a good basketball team.
"He’s a big steal guy. He’s an explosive scorer," Pitino said. "When you have three guards like that, you’re dangerous. We escaped while he was out."
Cincinnati could have an even more difficult time trying to slow down the Cardinals if forward Justin Jackson is unavailable.
Jackson hurt his left ankle against Temple, and Cincinnati found out what it’s like to play without its leading shot blocker and rebounder.
Temple scored 50 points in the second half and ended the Bearcats’ streak of holding 27 consecutive opponents under 70 points. They don’t have anyone else who can step in and fill his role for more than a few minutes.
David Nyarsuk is his replacement, but is prone to foul trouble. Cincinnati is trying to figure out what to do if Jackson can’t play at all or is significantly limited by the injury.
”It gives us some prep time on what to do without him,” coach Mick Cronin said Tuesday. ”What to do without him for 10 minutes is Dave. What to do without him for 40 minutes is a different story. To not have him for an entire game is the issue, and we’ve got to have that plan ready.”
Jackson averages 26 minutes, is among the leaders in Division I with 71 blocks and tops Cincinnati in rebounds (7) and steals (1.8) per game. The Bearcats are near the top of the nation with 56.9 points allowed per game.
”They’re big shoes to fill,” said senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, who leads the league with 19.1 points per game. ”But it’s very possible that they can be filled. He’s a huge anchor in our defense. We do need him.”
While this game will play a role in determining conference supremacy, a faceoff between two of the AAC’s top shooting guards provides a juicy subplot.
Smith is hitting 61.3 percent of his 3-pointers in conference play and averaging 18.1 points overall, right behind Kilpatrick in the AAC. Cronin said that’s because of the similarities between the players.
"Obviously, Sean is bigger and Russ is faster," Cronin said, "but I think when both of them are at their best their shot selection is great. I think both of them are at their worst when they take too many shots and too many hard shots.
"Their teams both tend to excel when they are judicious with their shot selection and their all-around offensive game is at its best."
The Bearcats lost at Louisville 67-51 last season in the Big East, turning the ball over a season-high 21 times. The Bearcats have more depth but less experience at guard this season, so Louisville’s full-court pressure will be a good test.
”They need to understand that Louisville’s defense – especially the deflections and the pressure – are something we haven’t seen yet this year,” Cronin said. ”We’ve had good teams that we’ve played against, but nobody that plays their style of defense. That would be my concern.”