Heading into Thursday night's showdown at Louisville, Cincinnati looked like the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.
The Bearcats were 19-2 overall and 8-0 in the conference, owning wins over Pitt and at Memphis. Still, with the defending champion Cardinals 6-1 in conference and riding a four-game winning streak, some doubt had started to build as to which team was the AAC's best.
Consider that doubt erased.
The Bearcats let a 17-point, second-half lead slip away, but they scored eight of the game's final 10 points, six by Sean Kilpatrick at the free-throw line, to win 69-66 and remain unbeaten in AAC play. Kilpatrick finished the night with 28 points, knocking down all 11 of his free throw attempts. At 9-0, Cincinnati is now 2.5 games ahead of both Louisville and Memphis, and has defeated both teams in their respective gyms, taking command of the AAC.
Cincinnati ranked No. 5 in adjusted defense efficiency on kenpom.com before the game, thanks in large part to the country's second-best two-point field goal percentage against (40.2) and seventh-best steal percentage (13.2). The Bearcats looked every part the dominant defense in the first half, holding high-powered Louisville to 20 points on 8-of-26 from the floor while forcing nine turnovers.
Louisville turned it around after halftime, using a 14-0 run to cut Cincinnati's 44-27 lead to 44-41 in less than three minutes. After leading for all of 18 seconds in the game's first 35 minutes, a 28-foot three from Russ Smith against the shot clock gave Louisville a 64-61 lead with five minutes left in the game.
At this point, a lesser team may have folded. The KFC Yum! Center was rocking and the Bearcats seemed to have lost all composure. Cincinnati gave the ball away on four consecutive possessions and 10 of 18 leading up to Louisville tying the game. While the Bearcats were the defensive aggressors in the first half, it was the Cardinals, who have the fifth-best defense according to KenPom and fourth-best steal percentage who ultimately forced 20 turnovers, reliably getting easy buckets in the second half.
That's when Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson took over.
Trailing by three, Kilpatrick calmly knocked down two free throws, then snatched a long rebound off a Luke Hancock missed three out of the air on Louisville's ensuing possession. After Kilpatrick missed a jumper, Jackson flashed his athleticism with an acrobatic tip-in to put the Bearcats back in front by one.
On the other end, Smith blew by Kilpatrick and appeared to have an easy layup, but a strong challenge from the help side by Jackson forced Smith to put the ball high off the glass, and what looked like a gimme rimmed out.
Louisville had another empty possession, but Jackson stripped Montrezl Harrell, forcing Louisville into a situation where it had to foul. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Cincinnati was able to get the ball in Kilpatrick's hands on each of the next two possessions. The 85-percent free throw shooter knocked down all four of his attempts and a Hancock prayer at the buzzer went begging, putting the Bearcats on a perch in the conference.
Cincinnati is now exactly halfway through its conference slate and while it will have return dates with Louisville and Memphis, both of those games will be at home. Mick Cronin has to be on the short list for National Coach of the Year. Largely considered the fourth team, at best, in the conference heading into the season, it would now be a major surprise if the Bearcats do not win the regular season conference championship. In addition to the rematches with Louisville and Memphis, they still have two games against Connecticut and have to travel to Dallas to take on SMU, but this is a team that can make a deep tournament run in March.
As for the Cardinals, the talk about needing a signature win just won't go away. They may be ranked 12th in the country this week, but their best win remains a road victory against Connecticut. Other than that, their only wins against teams in the RPI top 50 were at home against SMU and Southern Miss. There isn't a bad loss on the resume, but their also isn't a win that makes you think this team is a real threat in the tournament.
Providence misses golden opportunity at Marquette
Providence is firmly on the bubble, and is likely to be there most of the season. If it is to end up on the positive side of that bubble, its remaining games against Xavier, Villanova and Creighton are the ones that will really matter. However, any road win will help the Friars make a strong case to the committee. That's what makes Thursday's no-show at Marquette all the more frustrating.
The Friars scored just 14 points in the first half in Milwaukee, and though they eventually cut their deficit to four points, they could never quite get over the hump, eventually falling 61-50. Davante Gardner led the way for the Golden Eagles with 14, while Jamil Wilson had 11. Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton combined for 38 points on 15-of-33 from the floor, but the rest of the Friars made just four of their 25 shot attempts.
As the Friars head back East, they'll likely be counting all their missed opportunities in this game. It's not as if Marquette ran way with it in the second half. The Golden Eagles shot a meager 39.2 percent, including 3-of-13 from behind the arc. Unfortunately for the Friars, they were even worse. They made fewer than one-third of their shots, and made only two of the 17 they attempted from three-point land. While Cotton and Henton did their part in the scoring department, they were a combined 1-of-9 from long distance. Again, there's a long time until Selection Sunday, and the Friars are still well positioned. They own wins over Creighton and Xavier and are 7-5 against teams in the RPI top 100. They still get Villanova at home, though they travel to Cincinnati and Omaha for their remaining games with the Musketeers and Blue Jays, respectively. Could a 1-2 record in those games with a semifinal appearance in the Big East Conference tournament be enough to get them in the big dance? It definitely could, especially with the smaller conferences contributing so few bubble teams this year. But there's no doubt they'd feel better if they left Milwaukee with a win.