- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - Forward Justin Jackson stood 4 feet from the basket and gently banked in a few shots. He went out to the arc and let a few fly, being careful not to push off with his injured left ankle.

Pretty much, that was it for Cincinnati’s best defensive player on Tuesday. The sprain prevented him from practicing for the Bearcats’ biggest game yet in their new conference.

No. 13 Cincinnati goes to No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night in a showdown for first place in the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats (19-2, 8-0) are alone atop the new league, a game ahead of the Cardinals (17-3, 6-1).

“They’ve earned the right to have a big game and a big night,” coach Mick Cronin said before practice. “This is what the kids want.”

They don’t know if they’ll have their most indispensable player on defense. Jackson hurt his left ankle in the first half of an 80-76 win at Temple on Sunday, and Cincinnati found out what it’s like to play without its leading shot blocker and rebounder.

Temple scored 50 points in the second half and ended the Bearcats’ streak of holding 27 consecutive opponents under 70 points. They don’t have anyone else who can step in and fill his role for more than a few minutes.

David Nyarsuk is his replacement, but is prone to foul trouble. Cincinnati is trying to figure out what to do if Jackson can’t play at all or is significantly limited by the injury.

“It gives us some prep time on what to do without him,” Cronin said. “What to do without him for 10 minutes is Dave. What to do without him for 40 minutes is a different story. To not have him for an entire game is the issue, and we’ve got to have that plan ready.”

Jackson averages 26 minutes per game. He’s second in Division I with 71 blocks and leads Cincinnati in rebounds (7) and steals (1.8) per game. The Bearcats allow only 56.9 points per game, fifth nationally.

“They’re big shoes to fill,” said senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, who leads the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game. “But it’s very possible that they can be filled. He’s a huge anchor in our defense. We do need him.”

Jackson would like to try to play and see how the ankle reacts. Cronin will likely wait until Cincinnati’s pregame practice on Thursday to decide whether to let him try.

“I’m a machine,” Jackson said, using his favorite expression. “If it was my decision, I’d be practicing.”

Jackson was encouraged that the Bearcats pulled it out at Temple even though he played only 6 minutes before getting hurt.

“My team is great,” Jackson said. “I love ‘em. Regardless if I’m here not here, they’re going to get the job done.”

The Bearcats lost at Louisville 67-51 last season in the Big East, turning the ball over a season-high 21 times to help the Cardinals pull away. The Bearcats have more depth but less experience at guard this season, so Louisville’s full-court pressure will be a good test.

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