Rick Pitino and Louisville have to win Saturday -- or Cincinnati is a lock for the AAC title.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The two teams the network poobahs expected to play for the American Athletic Conference title are Louisville and Connecticut. Check the schedule. The Huskies and Cards are booked for a national TV game here March 8.
Ditto for the coaches. Nine of the league's 10 coaches picked Louisville to win the AAC title. Disallowed from voting for his team, Rick Pitino went with Connecticut. The media was no smarter. None of the pre-season magazines picked Cincinnati, which leads the league with a 13-1 record.
The skepticism continues.
Cincinnati came into the KFC Yum! Center Feb. 22 and beat Louisville by three points. Las Vegas shrugs at that news. The Cards are favored by 3 ½ for the rematch the teams will play Saturday at noon at Fifth Third Arena.
"We want to win our conference," Louisville senior Luke Hancock said. "Cincinnati's standing in our way to win our conference. That's how we're going to approach it. They're a great basketball team. A top 10 team and won a lot of games. But we need to go in there, execute and play well."
"It's going to be much harder to win this time," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "My belief is that we probably surprised their players a little bit with the kind of team that we have and what we're capable of and we're not going to catch them off guard this time."
I'll make this simple. This is the last chance for anybody to stop Cincinnati from doing what they're were not supposed to do – win the AAC title.
If Cincinnati wins, the Bearcats will be two games ahead of second-place Louisville (11-2) in the loss column with two victories against the Cardinals. That means Cincinnati would have to lose its last three games while Louisville won its final four for the Cardinals to win the league.
And speaking of forgetting something, did AAC coaches forget something when they picked Cincinnati to finish behind U of L, UConn and Memphis?
"I think you had four teams you could flip a coin -- Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Memphis, all with returning players with a lot of experience," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "So I don't think they really knew who to pick out of those four teams."
Could be. I also think Cincinnati's roster does not have the sex appeal of the other contenders.
When the season started, Louisville had three returning starters from a national championship team. UConn had Shabazz Napier, a player of the year candidate who has also won a national title. Memphis has a roster lined with four- and five-star recruits.
What does Mick Cronin have at Cincinnati?
One guy in the Bearcats' starting lineup was ranked among the Top 100 prospects in his high school senior class. That's redshirt sophomore Shaquille Thomas – and Rivals only ranked him 81st in 2011.
Sooner or later, somebody needs to give Cronin credit for the job he has done while going 24-3 with this team. His best player – guard Sean Kilpatrick – is a fifth-year senior. He picked UC over Auburn, George Washington, Kansas State, Oregon State, Seton Hall and St. John's.
If Kilpatrick scores 10 points Saturday, he'll become the second Bearcat ever to have 2,000 career points. The first? Oscar Robertson.
"You can't really speed him up," Hancock said. "He's always playing at his pace. Excellent shooter at all three phases. He gets to the rim. He shoots pull ups well, shoots three well. And you obviously can't put him at the three-point line.
"Just does a lot of different things well. He's a good passer. Bigger, stronger guard. Does a lot of different things."
"Cincinnati has three seniors and a junior, and they have a young man (Kilpatrick) who's going to get over 2,000 points coming up," Pitino said. "They remind me of (unbeaten) Wichita State, the way they play defense, the way they rebound.
"They're much better offensively than they've been in the past. They do a lot of good things."
On Saturday we'll learn if the last two weeks of the AAC season are going to matter or if Cincinnati is truly a better team than the league coaches and the folks in Las Vegas said they were.
"It's a rival game," said UC center Justin Jackson. "It's a payback game for them. It's Louisville. How can you not get excited for Louisville?"
"We know how good they are," Hancock said. "When two top 10 teams go at it …we're excited for the challenge. Can't wait for that atmosphere and that test."