CINCINNATI (AP) - The first-place cushion that No. 15 Cincinnati enjoyed for most of the season has eroded. The Bearcats head into the final week needing two more wins to get the first American Athletic Conference title.
And that means getting their offense in order. Fast.
The Bearcats (24-5, 13-3) have lost three of their last five games, including each of the past two. They’re tied for first place with No. 11 Louisville (24-5, 13-3) with two games left.
Both have tough finishes. One stumble could decide it all.
“Playing for a conference championship in your last two games, that’s big,” coach Mick Cronin said before practice on Tuesday. “Then you go to the conference tournament that’s one-and-out, and the NCAA tournament is one-and-out.
“So you’ve got to be sharp this time of year or it’s going to cost you. There’s a lot on the line each night out.”
It’s likely the last time Cincinnati and Louisville - longtime rivals in various conferences - will compete against each other for a conference title. The Cardinals head to the ACC next season.
They split their season series, each winning on the other’s home court. Cincinnati finishes at home on Thursday against No. 20 Memphis and at Rutgers on Saturday. Louisville is at No. 18 Southern Methodist (23-6, 12-4) and at home against No. 19 Connecticut.
If both of the Ohio River rivals stumble, SMU could move in and take the title.
The Bearcats won 69-53 at Memphis on Jan. 11, part of a 15-game winning streak that vaulted them into the top 10. The rematch comes on the night when the Bearcats honor senior starters Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson.
Those three helped rebuild the program into a consistent NCAA tournament team, so it’ll be an emotional final game at home.
“I’m still kind of lost for words,” Kilpatrick said Tuesday. “It probably won’t hit me until after the game, maybe a little before when I’m crying a little bit.”
“With me and Justin leaving, yeah, hopefully,” Kilpatrick said. “I’ve never seen him cry like that. With us being his favorite guys, hopefully he will.”
Don’t count on it.