BOZICH | Improbable Cincinnati has best shot to beat Kentucky (s - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Improbable Cincinnati has best shot to beat Kentucky (sort of)

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Cincinnati forward Jermaine Sanders tries to block a shot against Purdue. (AP Photo by Tim Easley.) Cincinnati forward Jermaine Sanders tries to block a shot against Purdue. (AP Photo by Tim Easley.)
 LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When they flashed the 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket on television Sunday, Cincinnati was not the team that jumped off the screen as the most likely candidate to beat Kentucky.

That changed Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center.

Now the Bearcats are the team with the best chance to stain the Wildcats' 35-0 record – and I can explain that to every Maryland, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke and Villanova fan.

Cincinnati is the only team on the bracket that is guaranteed a shot at the Wildcats.

“That's kind of been our elephant in the room these last couple of days,” said Gary Clark, the Bearcats' freshman forward. “Being ready for that game.”

That game will happen Saturday around 2:40 p.m. because UC outlasted Purdue (66-65) in overtime before UK thumped Hampton, 79-56, Thursday night in the Midwest Regional.

Can Cincinnati, a team that lost to Mississippi by a dozen points, beat a Kentucky team that has not lost to anybody? Jeff Sagarin's computer formula suggests that Kentucky will be favored by 18. Ken Pomeroy's numbers say UK by 11.

“Oh, yes sir,” Clark said. “Definitely.”

Easy to say the words, more difficult to explain the path. So explain, please, young man.

“Play Cincinnati basketball just like you saw tonight,” Clark said. “Not give up. Play physical the whole game. Crash the boards and don't let them dictate both ends of the court.

“If you can contain them on the boards, keep the bigs from rebounding, you give yourself a chance.”

Except Cincinnati lost 10 times this season, including games to Nebraska, Connecticut, Memphis and East Carolina, teams that failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

Ooops. I also forgot this one: Tulane 50, Cincinnati 49 – in Cincinnati.

Can you imagine Kentucky losing to Tulane in Rupp Arena? Didn't think so.

Yet instead of fear or reluctance, I sensed joy in the Cincinnati locker room about this game. Are the Bearcats excited?

“Very excited,” said Jermaine Sanders, one of the Bearcats' reserves. “This is what you come to college for, to play against one of the best teams in the country and probably one of the best college teams ever. We've got an opportunity to beat them so there's no greater feeling than that.

“I think we can compete with anybody in the country. I know they're the most talked about team and the best team, but I think we've got a big heart and I think that's what will make us prevail and get the win.”

Easy to say the words, more difficult to explain the path. So explain, please, young man.

“Make shots,” Sanders said. “Make shots. That's pretty much what we've got to do.”

Three-point shots? Shots from 15 feet? Dunks? Free throws? Trick shots?

“Shots in general,” Sanders said. “We've just got to make shots against them. Their defense won't allow you to get into the paint against them. But you've got to be ready to make shots and make plays on the defensive end and try to take their size away.”

Cincinnati was seeded eighth in the Midwest Regional because the Bearcats earned it. Since December, they have been playing without their coach, Mick Cronin, the former Rick Pitino assistant, who was told to step away from coaching by doctors after he was diagnosed with an aneurism.

These are not the Cincinnati Bearcats of Oscar Robertson, Kenyon Martin or even Nick Van Exel. It's a team that scrambled to average 62 points per game. A team that finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference, a league that earned two bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Obvious question: How is this team still playing, rallying from seven points behind in the final 48 seconds to overcome Purdue?

“Cincinnati is known for being tough and not giving in,” said Coreontae DeBerry, UC's back-up center. “We played Bearcat basketball tonight and we just didn't give in.

“We play tough. We're physical. I feel like we can match Kentucky.”

Good enough to beat Kentucky?

“We'll have to wait until Saturday night to find out,” DeBerry said.

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