Playing Cincinnati is just as much a staple of Louisville basketball as the maple syruppy confines of Freedom Hall.
Kentucky is obviously Louisville's fierecest rival, but the two didn't play between 1959 and 1983, and only met then because it was the NCAA Tournament. U of L and Memphis were once bitter enemies, but the Tigers tailed off in the early stages of C-USA, and now of course the two no longer play. Marquette has been a worthy adversary over the years, but Cincinnati and Louisville had been playing for 30 years before the Cardinals and Golden Eagles first met.
The Bearcats and Cardinals have followed each other from the Missouri Valley to Conference USA to the Big East, and tonight they meet for the 89th time (Louisville leads 50-38).
Of course the rivalry has changed drastically in recent years. No more Bob Huggins, no more Denny Crum, no more Kenyon Martin to terrify everyone on the floor, in the stands and watching from home, and no national rankings. In 52 of the previous 88 Cincinnati-Louisville games, at least one of the teams was nationally ranked, and in 13 of the contests, both schools were ranked.
The newest storyline is one of teacher and pupil.
As an associate coach at Louisville, Mick Cronin spent two seasons helping Rick Pitino revive a program from its lowest state in decades, a revival that culminated in a 2005 final four run. But Cronin was gone by then, having taken the head coaching job at Murray State where he was impressive enough to catch the eye of the folks in the Queen City after Bob Huggins had been run out of town. Now Cronin is in the midst of his first year as the head coach of one of Louisville's fierecest rivals, and he will take on his mentor for the first time as a conference foe tonight at Fifth Third Arena.
"We're friends before the game, and when the game goes on I don't even know Mick is down there," said Pitino.
Of course Cronin's presence on the Cincinnati bench is more than just a good angle for a story. The fact that Cronin is so familiar with the Louisville style of play may force Rick Pitino to pull some rabbits out of his hat if he wants to pick up consecutive win number four.
"Mick Cronin knows everything we're going to do," UofL guard Brandon Jenkins said. "Mick pretty much knows all our plays, so we've got to switch it up a little. He's got his guys playing real hard. We're definitely going to play hard and try to pull it out."
Cronin's first-year in the Big East hasn't been anything to write home about. Cincinnati is 10-10 and a league-worst 1-5 in conference play. The Bearcats have lost seven of their last eight and need to start picking up wins desperately if they hope to have any shot at making the Big East Tournament.
"We've got to try to capitalize at home," Cronin said. "If we're going to get to six wins in the conference, we need to start now."
A loss would drop the Bearcats below .500 overall for the first time since they lost their season opener to Oklahoma State in 2001. You have to go back to 1987-88 to find a UC team with a losing record this deep into a season.
"We just need wins," UC forward John Williamson said. "We're trying to make the tournament. We're trying to take every one we can get."
Cronin inherited just one player, Cedric McGowan, who saw significant time on last season's NCAA-snubbed team that was led by interim head coach Andy Kennedy. With little time to recruit, Cronin was forced to rely heavily on junior-college transfers to fill out his roster. Things got worse when Cronin lost three 6-10 players (two ruled ineligible, one transferred) during fall practice.
Still, UC has beaten West Virginia, taken Syracuse to overtime, and played right with Georgetown for 35 minutes. Even if this weren't a rivalry game, it would be far from a gimmie for the Cards.
The Bearcats are led by freshman guard Deonta Vaughn who is averaging just under 14 points a game. 6-8 junior center Marcus Sikes is averaging 10.6 points, and scored 18 points and hit all five of his 3-point attempts against Georgetown.
The game figures to be yet another clang fest as both teams have struggled mightily with field-goal accuracy. The Cardinals make just 42.3 percent of their shots, 32.9 percent from 3-point range. While UC shoots 41.0 percent from the field, and 31.1 percent from long range.
I'd like to end this by pointing out yet again how completely absurd it is that the Cards and Cats are only playing once this season. This will be the first time since the 1977 season that Cincinnati and Louisville haven't played at least twice, and it's a shame.
Louisville (15-6, 5-2)
Terrence Williams, F... 13.1 pts.
Juan Palacios, F....... 10.1 pts.
David Padgett, C....... 9.7 pts.
Brandon Jenkins, G..... 4.6 pts.
Edgar Sosa, G.......... 11.4 pts.
Cincinnati (10-10, 1-5)
Cedric McGowan, F..... 9.2 pts.
John Williamson, F..... 13.0 pts.
Marcus Sikes, C........ 10.6 pts.
Deonta Vaughn, G....... 13.8 pts.
Jamual Warren, G....... 8.8 pts.
FAVORITE: Louisville by 3 1/2
ALL-TIME SERIES: Louisville leads 50-38
ALL-TIME SERIES AT FIFTH THIRD ARENA: Cincinnati leads 9-4