Rick Pitino's Louisville team needs to beat Cincinnati Thursday to create a first-place tie in the AAC.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Cincinnati won at Memphis. Not by a finger roll. The Bearcats were better by 16 points. Louisville could not defeat Memphis in Louisville. Lost by six.
Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh. That's a win over a Top 25 team, a significant credential that Louisville lacks as we prepare to flip the calendar into February.
UC forward Justin Jackson has been named player of the week in the American Athletic Conference three times and guard Sean Kilpatrick leads the league with a 19.1 scoring average. The Cards cannot match the Bearcats in either category.
There's this silly thing called the AAC regular-season standings. At 8-0, the Bearcats lead the Cardinals by 1 1/2 games, even though AAC coaches predicted that Cincinnati would finish fourth.
Advantage: You guessed it -- Cincinnati.
I mention that stuff up front because even though I'm currently voting Cincinnati 11th and Louisville 12th in the Associated Press poll, I'm not convinced the Bearcats are better. Not at all.
In fact, if I have to pick an AAC team for March, it's Louisville. If I have to pick a team to win the conference, it's Louisville. If I have to pick a team Thursday night in the KFC Yum! Center, it's Louisville.
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale agrees.
"It's at home," Vitale said. "Louisville is playing well. I think Rick (Pitino) made a great move bringing (Wayne) Blackshear off the bench. Russ Smith is playing like an all-American. I just give the edge to Louisville at home. I really do."
Check the number in Las Vegas. It's somewhat jarring -- Cards by 9 1/2, likely a reflection that Jackson is going to try to play on an sprained ankle that forced him to the bench for the final 34 minutes against Temple Sunday.
Here's the crazy thing: The Bearcats are ranked 13th in the AP poll and 15th in the coaches' poll. So why does it seem like the Bearcats are ranked 113th? They're more anonymous than the guy taking tickets in the parking garage booth.
How come nobody ever talks about the solid job Mick Cronin does coaching Cincinnati? Why are the Bearcats averaging 7,175 fans per home game, barely a third of what Louisville averages?
"Mick has done as good a coaching job with the players he's had as anybody in the country," Pitino said. "But he doesn't have a lot of marquee names that they've had in the past. What he's done is he's developed these players …
"I think the attendance thing is more to the opponents … I think it's understandable (the lack of buzz around the AAC). But I don't think (Cronin) is under appreciated in terms of you all (in the media) or us as coaches. We know the job he's doing.
"But sometimes it's automatically if you sign a top prospect, those McDonald's all-Americans, you immediately build it and everybody wants to see them and create a buzz."
Pitino is right. Cincinnati does not have many people on this roster who have made the recruiting gurus sing. In fact, he has not had many during his eight seasons on the job.
There is Lance Stephenson. That's pretty close to the complete list.
That helps to explain why coaches in the AAC picked Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut to finish ahead of the Bearcats last October.
Louisville has better guards. Louisville has more depth. Louisville has more tournament experience. Louisville has more guys capable of 20-point nights.
The Cardinals simply need to prove it Thursday night when Cronin brings his surprising team into the KFC Yum! Center. The Cards have played three games against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at tipoff. They are 0-3. This is a credibility game for Rick Pitino's team.
"It's been awhile since we've had an extremely relevant game in terms of (conference) standings here," Pitino said. "Certainly this is not only a long-time rival of ours coming in, but a team that sits on top of the league in first place with an unblemished record."
It's also a credibility game for Cincinnati. Even though the Bearcats are 19-2 and lead the AAC, they are only ranked in the top 20 in one the three major computer power rankings. They're 20th in the RPI, 23rd in Ken Pomeroy and 25th in Jeff Sagarin's predictor numbers.
Oh, yeah. Like Louisville, the Bearcats are merely a five-seed in Joe Lunardi's latest NCAA Tournament bracket projection on ESPN.com. An insult? I'd call it that for a conference leader.
Even Cronin understands this is a Bright Lights moment for his team, a team that has not received the love you expect a 19-2 team to receive.
"As far as the whole big-game atmosphere, I think it's great," Cronin said. "This is what kids want. It's one game where I don't have to worry about motivation and making sure that my guys are ready to play."
The college basketball world is ready, too. People want to see if Cincinnati or Louisville is really the best team in the American Athletic Conference.