LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Winners of 12 straight, the Cincinnati Bearcats get to show the nation how good they are when they visit the defending NCAA champion Louisville Cardinals on Thursday night (7 p.m., ESPN).
It helps that UC will not be missing one of its best players.
Senior forward Justin Jackson, who sprained his ankle Sunday, has been cleared to play, coach Mick Cronin said Thursday morning. How effective Jackson will be is still a question.
UC, ranked No. 13, didn’t really have a Plan B for playing No. 12 Louisville without its best big man.
“Defensively, it eliminates your anchor. As much as SK (senior guard Sean Kilpatrick) is a great scorer, Justin is an anchor for our team on both ends. It’s going put a lot of pressure on us,” Cronin said before Jackson got the green light.
Jackson plays a crucial role in a Bearcats defense that's holding opponents to 56 points per game. He ranks second nationally with 71 blocks and leads the team in rebounding at seven per game.
Jackson also averages 11.1 points and 7.0 rebounds and shoots 54.8 percent.
The Bearcats are eager for the national spotlight and a chance to redeem themselves for last year's 67-51 blowout at Louisville.
"For us, I want our guys to embrace it. I think you have to remember that these are college kids and they've earned the right to have a big game in a big night,” Cronin said.
“But at the same time, execution is going to decide who wins.
“They need to understand that Louisville's defense, especially their deflections and pressure, is something that we have not seen yet and we really haven't had anybody come after us defensively. That would be my biggest concern."
The Bearcats turned the ball over a season-high 21 times in last year’s loss to the Cardinals. UC has more depth but less experience at guard this season, and the latter could be a problem, Cronin said.
“If you try to keep dribbling that ball, they're going to take it from you," Cronin said. "They have great quickness out front with Russ (Smith), (Terry) Rozier and (Chris) Jones."
The showdown pits the top two teams in the American Athletic Conference. UC (19-2) is 8-0 in the conference with Louisville (17-3) second at 6-1.
The Cardinals, on a four-game winning streak, haven't played in eight days. The Bearcats are coming off Sunday's hard-earned 80-76 victory over Temple.
Louisville has stepped up its defense in the last four games, holding opponents below 37 percent shooting and forcing an average of 16.3 turnovers a game.
"We have gained a lot of strength in terms of being able to change our defenses and recognize when we should change our defenses," coach Rick Pitino said.
Louisville is also clicking offensively behind a changed lineup with sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell now starting in place of junior Wayne Blackshear. Harrell has notched four double-doubles in the past five games, while Blackshear is providing a much-needed spark off the bench.
After struggling to score because of foul trouble, Blackshear has averaged 16 points and shot 65.4 percent over the past three games.
"The one thing you notice is how much more aggressive he is by not being in foul trouble," Pitino said.
Louisville's backcourt depth could get an added boost with Jones expected to return after missing the past three games with a strained oblique muscle. Though freshman Rozier has been solid starting beside senior Smith, Pitino said the Cardinals "need Jones desperately to be a good basketball team.
"He's a big steal guy. He's an explosive scorer," Pitino said of Jones. "When you have three guards like that, you're dangerous. We escaped while he was out."
The faceoff between two of the AAC's top shooting guards provides a juicy subplot.
UC's Kilpatrick is averaging 19.1 points per game while Louisville's Smith (18.1 ppg) is hitting 40 percent of his 3-pointers to Kilpatrick’s 35 percent.
Cronin said the guards have similar strengths and weaknesses.
"Obviously, Sean (6-feet, 4-inches) is bigger and Russ (6-0) is faster," Cronin said, "but I think when both of them are at their best their shot selection is great. I think both of them are at their worst when they take too many shots and too many hard shots.
"Their teams both tend to excel when they are judicious with their shot selection and their all-around offensive game is at its best."
Louisville forward Luke Hancock knows Kilpatrick's style well from being his teammate on last summer's USA Basketball World University Games squad and said the Cardinals must be prepared.
"He's constantly in attack mode," Hancock said of Kilpatrick. "He can score on so many different levels. ... containing him is going to be a five-person job."
Associated Press contributed to this report.