Tomorrow night at 7 PM on ESPN the 12th ranked Louisville Cardinals will host the 13th ranked Cincinnati Bearcats at the KFC Yum Center. It feels like its been a month since we last saw the Cardinals on the hardwood and the match up on Thursday night makes the anticipation that much greater.
This game has both AAC and NCAA implications. The Bearcats currently sit a top the American Athletic Conference standings at 8-0 while riding an overall 12 game winning streak. The Cardinals sit in second place in the conference and are on a 4 game streak of their own. More importantly, if give Louisville the chance for their first top 25 win of the season, something they desperately need to boost their RPI and position themselves for a decent seed come March.
Let’s look at 3 key match-ups that I think will decide the game:
1. Montrezl Harrell vs. Justin Jackson / inadequate stand in
Montrezl Harrell has been on a role lately and is finally starting to look like the NBA destined beast we expected this year. With 4 double doubles in the past 5 games and a newly acquired jump shot, Harrell has become a more complete offensive threat. For Cincinnati, Justin Jackson has been the rock on a solid defense team all year. He leads the team in rebounds, blocks, and steals per game, but went down with an ankle injury last Sunday against Temple and is questionable for the game. The options to replace him are really not options at all as proven by Temple’s second half scoring feast that almost cost Cincinnati the game. I think Jackson ends up playing but Harrell wins the battle at home.
2. Russ Smith vs. Sean Kilpatrick
What happens when a game that matches the #1 and #2 teams in the conference also matches the #1 and #2 scorers in the conference? My mind just exploded thinking about an answer to that. This is going to be exciting to watch, especially if they guard each other most of the time. Smith is faster but Kilpatrick is bigger and both can score at will sometimes. I’m calling this one a draw and I expect a lot of three point attempts.
3. Chris Jones vs. His own team
Chris Jones has been an important part of this basketball team, especially in the first part of the year. It is a hard job trying to fill the shoes of Peyton Siva, but Jones faces a harder challenge now. While being out a couple weeks with an oblique injury, Chris Jones has had to watch his team play their best basketball of the year with him on the bench. He’s had to watch a freshman, Terry Rozier, start in place of him and succeed.
I don’t think he has lost his starting job as long as he finds a way to complement Russ Smith and not compete with Russ Smith. He can’t go shot for shot and expect to play the minutes he has been because now there is another option. And that option has gotten some quality playing time, invaluable experience, and a boost of confidence since Jones went out. I think he struggles with it at first, but eventually becomes part of a three headed monster rotation at guard down the road.
Prediction: Louisville 76 Cincinnati 69