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NCAA tournament preview: Kentucky vs. Cincinnati

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bearcats have drawn the unenviable task of trying to hand the Kentucky Wildcats their first loss. And the Bearcats can’t wait for it.

"Who wouldn’t want to play the top team in the NCAA tournament?" forward Octavius Ellis said, grinning.

The Wildcats' opponents in their previous 35 games didn’t exactly enjoy the experience. But No. 8 seed Cincinnati is a program built on toughness and won't back down against anybody.

"We have to be physical and go be the Bearcats," guard Kevin Johnson said. "I think we’ll go about it in a very confident way. We’ve got nothing to lose."

Kentucky won its opening tournament game 79-56 against Hampton, but the Wildcats weren’t too pleased with their performance. Afterward, they promised to play with more intensity and focus next time out. So good luck with that, Cincinnati.

Key to the game: As with most of Kentucky’s opponents, dealing with the Wildcats’ sheer size poses a major challenge for the Bearcats. The 6-foot-10 Ellis is Cincinnati’s tallest player, though the team did get unexpected contributions from 6-9, 275-pound Coreontae DeBerry in the overtime win against Purdue after Ellis was ejected for a flagrant foul. The Bearcats’ matchup zone can help to neutralize some of Kentucky’s effectiveness in the paint. "We know they're going to be tenacious on defense," Wildcats center Karl-Anthony Towns said. But rebounding and generating much offense against Kentucky's cadre of shot-blockers is a big concern. Cincinnati is not a prolific 3-point shooting team, so it will have to work to get good looks and not rush.

Player to watch: Towns. Kentucky’s star freshman continues to improve and scored a career-high 21 points with 11 rebounds in just 25 minutes on Thursday night against Hampton. He has shown the ability to score with either hand, and he helps form an often-impenetrable wall at the rim with Willie Cauley-Stein. Cincinnati doesn’t have the personnel to match up with Towns and also account for Cauley-Stein and forward Trey Lyles. Then again, few teams do.