While it may be true that the Wildcats will not head into this game with much momentum, if history predicts the outcome, then the Wildcats are in pretty good shape. Kentucky leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 26-10. UC has not actually beaten Kentucky since 1940, though the teams did not play from 1948 to 1984. The last time they met was in 1991. Freshman forward Jamaal Mashburn pitched in 25 points to help UK edge UC 75-71, at Shoemaker Arena.
Kentucky (26-5) has passed on scheduling the Bearcats, citing contractual obligations with Indiana and Louisville in pre-conference, non-league scheduling. This has been viewed by many Bearcats fans as an insult and has provided an additional motivation for UC to show Kentucky the errors of its ways.
"We're like Duke and Carolina, except we never play," said Cincy's 6-foot-8 senior forward Eric Hicks added. "Now we get to play them, and it's in the tournament. Both teams are going to come out and battle. May the best team win."
Senior Jason Maxiell assured that the teams would meet when he scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots.
"I've been here four years and I always get asked, `Why don't you and UK play?'" said the 6-foot-8 power forward. "I get stopped on the street by people who tell me, `I'm a UC fan. My wife is a UK fan.' It's going to be a very intense game. I know there will be more than 27,000 that were here for the Iowa game today. There's going to be a lot of people with red and blue on."
While the Cincinnati players all seem to be licking their chops, eager for the opportunity to throw off the gloves and duke it out at center court, the Kentucky players may have to dig deep to find their own motivation.
Add to that, the fact that opposing coaches seemed to have found a formula for beating Kentucky – keep the Wildcats off the glass and shut down Patrick Sparks. One common thread in Kentucky's three losses since Feb. 15 has been the ongoing struggles of one Patrick Sparks. He had only six points in the 73-61 loss at South Carolina on Feb. 15, five in the 53-52 loss at Florida on March 6 and four in the 70-53 loss to Florida in the SEC title game. There is also a correlation between Patrick's struggles and UK's ugliest wins. As examples, Patrick scored five points in a 53-50 win against Ole Miss, five points in a 68-67 win against Arkansas, five in an 81-73 win against Auburn and then came up with the big goose egg on Thursday against Eastern Kentucky.
While it may be too simplistic to place such pressure on the shoulders of the junior guard, Kentucky's ability to beat Cincinnati may come down to the play of Sparks.
"It's not a secret," Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford said, "it appeared to us that shutting down Sparks was paramount for us to have a chance." Florida coach Billy Donovan said almost the same thing after beating Kentucky for the second time, "We had seen Sparks tee off on teams and just bury them with his outside shots. It was definitely part of our game plan to stop him from scoring."
In addition to finding a way to get Sparks some open shots, coach Tubby Smith must also find a way to neutralize the Bearcats' rebounding, a daunting task. Cincinnati will be a challenge for the Cats on the glass. While the Bearcat front line is not particularly tall, they are muscular and powerful with 6-foot-7 Jason Maxiell and 6foot-6 Erick Hicks. Both are in the 240-260 lb. range. The Bearcats have outrebounded their foes by an average of five per game this season, and teams like Cincy have given the Cats a lot of trouble this year.
"I go up against him (Maxiell) every day in practice," Hicks said, "we have some monster battles against each other. So when he hit the court against others, we are pretty much ready to take on anyone." The Bearcats and Wildcats seem to be programs traveling in different directions with regard to momentum. The Cats struggled to beat LSU in overtime, got blown out against Florida and struggled to beat 15th seeded Eastern.
Since losing five of nine games from January 15 to February 12, the Bearcats have won eight games in a row heading into its matchup against Kentucky.