It’s been a while since this rivalry has witnessed the Bearcats and Cardinals play each other whilst slotted so high in the rankings. The last time both were even ranked at the same time was in February of 2005 when #9 Louisville bested #18 Cincinnati 77-70. The last time they were ranked higher than they are now was January of 2004 when UC was the 6th best team in the nation and the Cardinals the 5th. But Louisville ran away with that one 93-66. Interestingly enough, both games were played on the Cardinals’ home court, much like the contest tomorrow night. The only difference is that they were in the old Freedom Hall. Louisville has since moved to the basketball palace that is the KFC Yum! Center. While UC is 0-3 since the Cardinals began play there, the teams have never hooked up while both were ranked.
Let’s hope a change in scenery bucks the trend of Cincinnati meeting Louisville in the rankings, then losing on the road.
The national champs are playing like the national champs this season. Statistically Louisville is as strong on the offensive end as they are on the defensive end, leading the AAC in points scored per game (83.2) and 3rd in the conference in points allowed per game (61.8). One of the main reasons the Cardinals are so good offensively is that they move the ball well (15.4 assists per game, 2nd in the AAC), use an uptempo style to generate a boatload of possessions (69.9 per game, 3rd in the AAC), and are efficient with those possessions (1.19 points per possession, 1st in the AAC). Louisville is simply a well-coached, talented team with scorers all over the floor. Each one plays a roll and plays it perfectly. In other words, the Cardinals top-to-bottom are a tough team to stop.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russ Smith (#2): Louisville’s offense runs first and foremost through him. Smith leads the team in points per game (18.1), assists per game (4.8), and steals per game (1.9). If there’s one chink in the armor it’s that the Cardinals point guard turns the ball over quite a bit. The numbers could be skewed by how many times he touches the ball but Russ Smith is giving it up 3.1 times per game. Plus his 1.5 assist/turnover ratio is lagging far behind his otherwise stellar numbers from the point guard position.
Montrezl Harrell (#24): This guy worries me a whole heck of a lot tomorrow night for the simple reason that Justin Jackson might not be able to go. Facts are facts, neither David Nyarsuk nor Titus Rubles can match up with Montrezl Harrell one-on-one. The 6’8″ 235 lbs power forward averages 12.1 points and a team leading 8.5 rebounds per game. I’d expect Cronin to tell his players to crash Harrell whenever possible which might expose Cincinnati on the outside, allowing Louisville’s prolific three-point shooters (Smith, Wayne Blackshear, and Chris Jones) open shots. That inside-out game could cripple the Bearcats if Harrell starts exerting himself down low.
Russ Smith v. GeLawn Guyn: As conference play has worn on, it’s become blatantly obvious that while Troy Caupain is a force to be reckoned with on the offensive end, he’s still trying to climb the learning curve on the defensive side of the floor. As such, I expect Mick Cronin to play Guyn more tomorrow night in an effort to slow down Russ Smith. The UC head coach preaches a “defense first” mentality so if Caupain can’t corral the dynamic point guard he will probably be quick to substitute him for the more defensively capable Guyn. Keep an eye on this, though, because if it so happens that Cincinnati starts to fall behind I’d be curious to see if Mick abandons his philosophy and plays Caupain more often in hopes of putting points on the board.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTION
Forget New Mexico, Pitt, or Memphis, the Cardinals are Cincinnati’s most complete opponent of the season. They just do so many things well on both ends of the floor and have playmakers out the wazoo. This will be a difficult challenge for the Bearcats with or without Justin Jackson tomorrow night. Louisville’s record bears out how strong of a team they are. The Cardinals are 17-3 this season but all three of their losses have come against ranked teams (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Memphis). Will the same thing occur a fourth time tomorrow night? Sure, why not. I’m an optimist* after all.
*Do not read my Twitter feed