It took three months and 20 games, but Louisville basketball fans will finally be treated to a top-25 matchup in the KFC Yum! Center Thursday night when the No. 12/7 Cardinals (17-3, 6-1) host No. 13/15 Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0) in a crucial American Athletic Conference showdown.
With a victory, UofL --the preseason favorite -- would pull even with UC in the loss column and within a half-game overall. The two teams will meet again on Feb. 22 in Fifth Third Arena in a game that is already sold out -- the Bearcats' first home sellout since the Cards' last visit on Feb. 23, 2012. SMU and Memphis are the closest teams to the AAC frontrunners at 5-2.
The game also has NCAA Tournament seeding implications, especially for Louisville, which is the only team in the AP top 18 without a victory over a ranked team. UofL's strength of schedule is at No. 80 in the NCAA rankings, while its RPI is 28. Cincinnati's SOS is 97, with a 23 RPI. The Bearcats own two wins over Top 25 teams -- No. 18 Pittsburgh (44-43) and No. 22 Memphis (69-53).
Opportunities for resume'-building wins are few and far between the rest of the season for UofL, which is 0-3 against teams that were ranked at the time (North Carolina, Kentucky, Memphis, all away from home). After Thursday, their only remaining games against Top 25 teams are the rematch at UC and at Memphis on March 1.
In current Bracketology predictions, Louisville is seeded anywhere from fifth to eighth or ninth. So this is a rare chance to enhance its seeding attractiveness.
The game is expected to mark the return of point guard Chris Jones, who has missed three games with a strained oblique muscle suffered in UofL's Jan. 12 win over SMU.
The 5-10 junior returned to practice late last week. Jones is the Cards' third-leading scorer at 11.3 ppg and is second in assists (47) and steals (31).
In Jones absence, freshman Terry Rozier has played exceptionally well while helping UofL to wins in all three games. In seven AAC games, Rozier is averaging 9.0 ppg, 2.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range (9-19) and committing just six turnovers.
However, whether or not Rozier remains in the starting lineup when Jones returns is uncertain. UofL coach Rick Pitino hasn't tipped his hand except to insist that UofLis a better team with Jones on the court.
Addressing outside opinions that UofL is better with Rozier in the lineup, Pitino says:
"That is 100 percent not true, not true. We're much better WITH Chris Jones."
The Cards are coming off an eight-day layoff that was preceded by some of their best performances of the season while compiling a four-game winning streak, albeit against two teams that didn't even try to compete -- Houston and USF. The other wins were more impressive, coming against SMU and at Connecticut.
"I'm very happy right now," Pitino says. "Since (the loss to) Memphis, we've probably played our three best games of the year."
Cincinnati has won 12 in a row, the latest 80-76 at Temple in which the Bearcats blew a 19-point lead as their streak of holding foes under 70 points ended at 27 games.
UC coach Mick Cronin, a former assistant under Pitino, is well aware that the Bearcats have yet to face the most demanding part of their schedule. Besides the two games with UofL, they also have two against UConn and a return engagement with Memphis at Fifth Third Arena.
"For us, it's not about where you're at, it's about where you're going," Cronin says. "If you're not improving, you're getting worse. Sometimes you have to coach harder when you're winning. It can't just be, 'Hey, let's just get a win.' I want guys to play up to their potential. (A week ago) we had four games left in January and our goal was to go 4-0. We've got three down and one to go, and it's going to be brutal."
UC has won three of the last give games against UofL, but the Cards have taken the last two.