- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville’s four-game winning streak is a good sign that things are falling into place for the Cardinals.

Thursday night’s American Athletic Conference showdown with No. 13 and first-place Cincinnati will determine if the 12th-ranked Cardinals can maintain their momentum against a Bearcats squad on a 12-game roll.

An already-important game for these rivals carries even more weight as Louisville (17-3, 6-1) aims to draw closer to Cincinnati (19-2, 8-0). The Cardinals will be playing their first game in eight days; the Bearcats are coming off Sunday’s hard-earned 80-76 victory over Temple.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s main goal is continuing a defensive upswing that has held the Cardinals’ last four AAC opponents below 37 percent shooting and forced 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,” Pitino said Wednesday.

Since allowing Memphis to shoot 51 percent in its lone conference loss, Louisville’s defense has clamped down in beating SMU, Houston, Connecticut and South Florida. The Cardinals have allowed those four to combine for 75 of 215 from the floor (35 percent).

Louisville is also clicking offensively behind a changed lineup with senior Luke Hancock starting alongside sophomore Montrezl Harrell. Both have scored in double digits the past two games with Harrell notching four double-doubles in the past five contests.

Former starter Wayne Blackshear is also providing a much-needed spark off the bench for the Cardinals. After struggling to score because of foul trouble, the junior 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 of Blackshear.

Louisville’s backcourt depth could get an added boost with guard Chris Jones expected to return against Cincinnati after missing the past three games with a strained oblique muscle. Though freshman Terry Rozier has been solid starting beside senior Russ Smith and had nine points, five assists and three steals in last Wednesday’s 86-47 thrashing of USF, the coach 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.”

While this game will play a role in determining conference supremacy, a faceoff between two of the AAC’s top shooting guards provides a juicy subplot.

Smith is hitting 61.3 percent of his 3-pointers in conference play and averaging 18.1 points per game overall, second-best in the AAC behind Cincinnati senior guard Sean Kilpatrick (19.1 points per game). Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said that’s because of the similarities between the two players.

“Obviously, Sean is bigger and Russ 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.”

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.”

Injury-wise, Cincinnati forward Justin Jackson is uncertain for the game after hurting his left ankle in the first half against Temple. The 6-foot-8 senior has been the cog in a Bearcats defense that’s allowing opponents an average of 56 points a game; he ranks second nationally with 71 blocks and leads the team in rebounding at seven per contest.

Meeting those challenges will determine if Louisville stays on its roll or has to start a new one.

“There’s no margin for error in this game,” Pitino said. “If we don’t take care of the backboard the way (the Bearcats) offensive rebound, we’ll be in for a long night.”

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