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January 29, 2014

Jones back, but Cards face tough test

Point guard Chris Jones will be back in uniform for No. 12/7 Louisville's American Athletic Conference showdown with No. 13/15 Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0) Thursday night in the KFC Yum! Center, but don't look for him to reappear in the starting lineup.

That spot will remain in the capable hands of freshman Terry Rozier, who has played exceptionally well while Jones missed the last three games recuperating from a strained oblique muscle.

UofL coach Rick Pitino didn't reveal how much he planned to use Jones, but praised the 5-10 junior.

"He's 100 percent, practicing well," Pitino said. "I've heard some comments that people think we're a better team without Chris Jones. I can assure you that's not even close to being true. We need Chris Jones desperately to be a good basketball team.

"He's a heckuva basketball player. Really, really good. Now, he's different than Terry. But he's a big steal guy. He's an explosive scorer. He's a hard-working guy. We need him to be a very effective basketball team. When you have three guards like that, you're dangerous. We escaped while he was out. We're very happy about that."

Since losing to Memphis, 73-67, at home on Jan. 9, the Cardinals (19-3, 6-1) have won four in a row, but they're still looking for their first victory over a Top-25 team after a trio of losses -- to North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis).

"It's been awhile since we've had an extremely relevant game in terms of (conference) standings here and certainly this is not only a longtime rival of ours coming in, but a team that's sits on top of the league in first place with an unblemished record," Pitino says. "So we're excited about the challenge. Cincinnati is one of the better defensive teams in the country. They have a veteran ballclub in certain areas, they have outstanding guard play as well as very good interior defense. There's no margin for error in this game."

Cincinnati received only one vote in the preseason AP poll, but coach Mick Cronin's tenacious and physical club has come out of nowhere on the strength of its defense and the stellar play of guard Sean Kilpatrick and forward Justin Jackson, both seniors.

The Bearcats, who have won 12 straight, rank fifth nationally in NCAA Division I in scoring defense, allowing just 56.9 ppg, and are 15th in field goal percentage defense at 38.3. They had held 27 teams in a row under 70 points until Temple snapped the string last Saturday in an 80-76 loss.

"Mick's an excellent defensive coach and they contain the basketball very well," Pitino says. "Like Wichita State, they attack the paint defensively with all five of their players. They close out very well, and Jackson's a terrific shot-blocker, one of the best in the country at changing shots."

Jackson ranks second in the nation in total blocks (71) and seventh in blocks per game (3.38). He also leads the AAC in offensive rebounds at 3.2 per game. He's averaging 11.1 ppg and 7.0 rpg. Jackson suffered a sprained ankle against Temple, and Cronin says his availability will be a gametime decision.

"He's still got the mean face, but he's got the bad ankle," Cronin says. "We'll see. If we don't have him, defensively, it eliminates your anchor. We're down to eight scholarship guys if he doesn't play. You're trying to play one of the best teams in the country with eight guys on scholarship. That's not an easy thing to do."

But Pitino doesn't expect it to happen.

"Somebody just told me he (Jackson) tweeted he feels like a million dollars right now," Pitino said. "So we fully expect him to be healthy and ready to go, which is the way you would want it."

While Jackson is a handful defensively, Kilpatrick presents a challenge at the other end of the court. The 6-4, 210-pounder leads the AAC in scoring at 19.1 ppg, ranks second in three-pointers made (2.6) and fifth in free throw percentage (84.9).

UofL forward Luke Hancock was a teammate of Kilpatrick's last summer on the USA's World University Games team, so he knows what to expect.

"He's a great player, he's constantly in attack mode," Hancock says. "He's a senior, he's been around. A tough kid and he really gets after it. Their team plays so hard and he's the leader of the team. He can score on so many different levels -- get to the rim, shoot mid-range, deadly on threes. Containing him is going to be a five-person job and we'll have to be locked in."

Cronin said for UC to have a shot at its fourth win in the last six games against UofL, the Bearcats will have to take care of the basketball. The Cards are third nationally in steals at 10 per game.

"Our guys need to understand that Louisville's defense, especially their deflections and their pressure, are something we have not seen this year," Cronin says. "We haven't really had anybody come after us defensively. If you play at Louisville and you turn the ball over you might as well not even travel down I-71 because you've got no chance."

This will be the 98th game in the series that started in 1921 (UofL leads 55-42). With UofL joining the Atlantic Coast Conference next season and UC remaining in the AAC, it could also be the next-to-last for the foreseeable future. The teams will have a rematch in Fifth Third Arena on Feb. 22, and could meet a third time in the AAC Tournament in Memphis, but then that's the end -- at least for awhile.

Pitino says there is no room on the Cards' non-conference schedule for Cincinnati, especially next year when they will face Kentucky, Indiana and Minnesota along with opponents in the ACC, which Pitino says will be as strong as the old Big East.

"Our schedule (in 2014-15) is virtually impossible," he says. "If it gets any tougher we're going to go into the Atlantic Division of the NBA."

Said Cronin: "It would be a shame if we never played again. "Who knows what the future holds, but as far as the immediate future, next year we had to move on. Obviously, I would love to continue the series. Playing them would make us better."

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