Despite being such close neighbors, the two tradition-rich programs have had surprisingly few opportunities to compete on the hardwood. UK and UC have played only six times since 1948 with the Wildcats winning each one as part of a 15-game streak over the Bearcats.
Cincinnati senior forward Jermaine Sanders said the big blue shadow UK casts extends well beyond the shores of the Ohio River and into the Queen City. He noted that UC players frequently see people wearing Wildcats gear when they’re out having dinner or going to the movies.
While that may be a bit irritating at times, Sanders and his UC teammates have mostly -- and wisely -- been respectful of the opponent they’re about to face. But don’t confuse that with being in awe of the nation’s top-ranked team.”
Said UC sophomore guard Troy Caupain: “We’re not going to go in there nervous. We’re not going to go in there scared. Cincinnati basketball has never been known to back down from anybody.”
“It's what you come to college for, to play against one of the very best teams in the country, probably one of the best teams ever,” Sanders added.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he knows the Bearcats will be highly motivated.
"They’ve got a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country,” he said. "I would imagine they’re dreaming about it, thinking about it, having people in the stands. 'Make sure you take video of this because I want my grandkids to see it.' And I don’t blame them. That’s the great thing about these tournaments. It’s for these kids, my kids and their kids. It should be a great game. It should be a war."
The UK boss surmised the Bearcats will try to play his team physical, a trademark of UC teams dating back to Bob Huggins’ tenure as head coach. Not much has changed under Mick Cronin, who was forced off the sidelines earlier this season due to an un-ruptured brain aneurysm but is with his team in an advisory role while associate head coach Larry Davis handles the sideline duties.
Cincinnati is currently ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense at 55.6 points allowed per game. The Bearcats are 21st in defensive field goal percentage at 38.9.
In what could be one of the tourney’s better defensive matchups, Kentucky comes in third in scoring defense (54.0), first in defensive field goal percentage (35.3) and second in blocked shots per game (6.8).
Ellis, a 6-foot-10 post player, figures to be a primary focus of UK’s game plan Saturday. He leads the Bearcats at 9.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Gary Clark is also a solid contributor on the front line at 8.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
Caupain (9.5 ppg, 3.5 apg) directs the UC backcourt, where Farad Cobb and Kevin Johnson are the Bearcats’ two most dangerous perimeter shooters. Cincinnati, however, is 205th nationally in 3-point shooting at 33.5 percent as a team.