Cincinnati's suffocating defensive play was a big reason why the team earned a share of the American Athletic Conference's first regular-season title.
It's also likely to play a vital role in any of the No. 13 Bearcats' postseason success.Top-seeded Cincinnati may be looking for another impressive defensive display as they attempt to beat ninth-seed UCF for the third time this season Thursday night in Memphis.The Bearcats (26-5) ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense at 58.4 points per game, going 15-3 in the AAC to match fifth-ranked Louisville."I am really proud of the guys," coach Mick Cronin said. "To be able to grind out a regular-season championship, 15-3 in this league is pretty strong."In my mind, we won a championship no matter what. Whether it is shared or not, you're conference champs."Cincinnati also won a coin toss to determine the top seed in the tournament after all the tiebreakers with Louisville failed to settle it.The Bearcats' defense has done much of the settling all season, and that was evident in winning both season meetings with the Knights (13-17) by an average of 23.0 points.Cincinnati has held UCF to 34.0 percent from the floor -- 26.7 from beyond the arc -- in those meetings. The Bearcats were dominant in the most recent matchup, 77-49 on Feb. 19, allowing just 29.6 percent shooting.UCF, though, is averaging 99.0 points while hitting 49.3 percent of its field goals while winning back-to-back games.Isaiah Sykes has been superb over that stretch, totaling 60 points while sinking 60.0 percent from the field.The swingman converted 13 of 23 shots while scoring a career-high 36 points with nine rebounds and three steals in Wednesday's 94-90 double-overtime win over Temple in the opening round of the AAC tournament."The difference was 36 points, which was very important," coach Donnie Jones said. "Obviously having him, he's been a focal point in our offense in so many ways, versatile, you can see we use him in many different situations we play him at the point and we play 'out' of him."Sykes, though, has struggled greatly against Cincinnati, totaling 22 points while making just 7 of 27 field goals this season.Fellow senior Tristan Spurlock wasn't much better with seven total points and four rebounds. However, the forward had 19 points and eight boards against the Owls.Fatigue will be a factor for UCF as four of its five starters logged at least 40 minutes, with Sykes playing 44.Sean Kilpatrick will try to get Cincinnati going offensively after leading the conference with 20.9 points per game.The senior is averaging 25.1 over the past eight games, including a season-high 34 in a 97-84 win over then-No. 20 Memphis last Thursday.He followed that up with 24 points in a 70-66 win at Rutgers in the regular season finale Saturday.Kilpatrick totaled 43 points while making 9 of 18 from long range against UCF this season. He also managed that success while playing under 30 minutes in each meeting -- the only conference games where he didn't reach that mark.The winner of this game will meet the Connecticut-Memphis winner in the semifinals Friday.