Memphis vs. Louisville: Why Winner of AAC Showdown Will Decide Conference Champ

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Memphis vs. Louisville: Why Winner of AAC Showdown Will Decide Conference Champ
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It is a bold statement to make in the first full week of January, but the winner of Thursday's American Athletic Conference showdown will go a long way in deciding who the conference champion is in early March. 

No. 24 Memphis (10-3, 1-1) has proven next to nothing in games against ranked opposition this season. The only win against a foe in the AP Top 25 for the Tigers this season came back on December 1 against then-No. 5 Oklahoma State. 

While beating a top-five team on a neutral floor—the game was played at the Old Spice Classic—is usually a great achievement, the victory was really just one filled with revenge after Josh Pastner's team was thoroughly embarrassed by Marcus Smart two weeks earlier in Stillwater. 

No. 12 Louisville (13-2, 2-0) came into the game at KFC Yum! Center with a point to prove to the nation as a wounded defending national champion looking to stake its claim at the pinnacle of the sport once more.

Doing that will be hard for Rick Pitino and company this season, as they have been relegated to the AAC for one season before moving to the basketball powerhouse of the ACC. 

The Cardinals are also without the services of Chane Behanan, who was recently dismissed from the team. 

Despite all of their struggles, it is still clear that both the Cardinals and Tigers have the most talent in the conference and have the capability to show up in big games. If UConn didn't just lose their first two conference games to Houston and SMU, they would be included in this discussion. 

No one in the conference outside of Memphis or Louisville has a snowball's chance in hell of stopping Joe Jackson or Russ Smith when they eventually catch fire in their final seasons as collegiate athletes.

Both players have a ton to prove, Jackson more than Smith because of the display the Louisville guard put on in crunch time last season.

Jackson has scored under 10 points just once this season, which was in the first meeting against Oklahoma State, as he has put together a points-per-game average of 15.0. 

Smith has done his backcourt counterpart on Thursday one better, as he has scored over 20 points in five contests, including his first two AAC clashes against UCF and Rutgers. 

Both players are the clear stars of their teams, but they also have a strong supporting cast that can beat up on lower-level opponents in the AAC all season long. 

Memphis has Shaq Goodwin (12.3 PPG) and Michael Dixon Jr. (11.4 PPG) to help Jackson in the scoring department, while Goodwin is also a force in the paint with 6.6 rebounds per game.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Shaq Goodwin has been a major contributor for Memphis this season.

The supporting cast of Louisville, which helped the team win a national title last season, contains players like Montrezl Harrell (11.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG), Wayne Blackshear (10.0 PPG) and Luke Hancock (8.9 PPG, 1.4 APG), who have delivered quality so far this season.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Cardinals offense not named Smith is Chris Jones, who, at 12.6 points per game, is second on the team in scoring. 

While the two teams may be behind Cincinnati in the conference standings heading into Thursday's matchup, the Bearcats are expected to fade off a bit and not challenge for the regular-season AAC title when March rolls around. 

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Let's be honest here, UConn will recover from their rough patch, but they are too inconsistent to pose a fight in the title race.

That leaves Memphis and Louisville, the two best and deepest sides, to battle it out for their first AAC regular-season title. 

With Memphis already one game behind in the loss column, a loss to Louisville would put them on the back foot early on, but if they win on the road and at FedEx Forum against the Cardinals, they will be in the driver's seat. 

Louisville is the favorite to win the game and the conference because of Memphis' inability to show up in the big games under Pastner, but that can all change in 40 minutes on the hardwood Thursday night. 

 

Follow me on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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