#4 Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
Notre Dame (25-5/Second Place) – Finished 9-0 at home and 5-4 on the road in conference play. The Irish were 3-1 in neutral site games, losing only to Kentucky in Louisville while defeating Georgia, California, and Wisconsin to win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
Cincinnati (25-7/Sixth Place) – The Bearcats won six of their last seven including a Wednesday night victory over South Florida in the tournament's second round. Cincinnati has not lost outside the Queen City since a February 5 trip to Pittsburgh.
Tip-off: 7:00 PM (EST) ESPN
Previous Meeting: Each of Notre Dame's five starters netted double figures and the Irish held the Bearcats to a 38 percent shooting effort in South Bend en route to a 66-58 Notre Dame win in late January. Sean Kilpatrick scored 16 off the bench to pace the visitors who attempted just eight free throws in the contest while the Irish connected on 19 of 24 charity offerings.
Series history: Notre Dame leads 7-3 including a 4-2 edge since the Bearcats joined the Big East in 2005. Tonight's meeting will be the first between the teams in Big East Tournament action.
Notre Dame: Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John's, Cincinnati, Marquette, at Pittsburgh, Louisville, Villanova, at Connecticut
Cincinnati: Xavier, at St. John's, Louisville, at Marquette, and a sweep of Georgetown.
Quote to Note: "When Abro and Ben and I were in the car back to the hotel we all agreed we'd give all of our trophies back for the one Saturday night." – Mike Brey, in reference to the Scholar-Athlete, Player of the Year, and Coach of the Year awards the trio received, respectively, at Tuesday's Big East awards ceremony.
Point Spread: Notre Dame -1.5
Meet the BearcatsFifth-year head coach Mick Cronin and his Bearcats will qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the coach's tenure. Cincinnati won with defense this season, ranking second in the Big East, allowing just over 61 ppg., and fifth in rebounding margin. Like the Irish, they're a veteran group (five seniors and two juniors contribute to the deep rotation).
Enigmatic center Yancey Gates has played the best ball of his career over the last two weeks, averaging 16.8 points and eight rebounds per game over his last six outings. Gates had been benched for a February 5th game at Pittsburgh, for a violation of team rules – more specific – for a poor attitude.
"We don't have lot of team rules: Play hard, have a great attitude, be a good guy," said Cronin following Gates' suspension, indefinite at the time. "It's not that hard to be a Bearcat. You either do it that way or you don't play for us. It doesn't matter who you are. You're going to play hard, you're going to be coach-able and you're going to have a good attitude."
When motivated, Gates, who hit 10 of his 11 field goal attempts last night, is as difficult to contain as any center in the conference.
Augmenting the big man's effort is veteran guar Dion Dixon who netted 21 points with six assists in last night's Cincinnati victory over South Florida. Dixon finished second on the squad in scoring (11.9) and three-point percentage (36.9%). He's connected on 13 of his last 27 offerings from long range during the Bearcats last six contests.
Freshman guard Sean Kilpatrick provides Cincinnati with a perimeter punch off the bench, leading the squad in three pointers made (45) and percentage (39.1%). Kilpatrick scored 16 in the team's first matchup and hit for double figures in 11 league games this season including a 12-point effort last night. Sophomore guard Cashmere Wright will run the point. The Savannah, GA native hit 35 percent of his 88 three-point shots en route to 9.1 points per game while finishing 14th in the conference with 3.9 assists per game in league play.
Senior forwards Ibrahima Thomas (5.9 points/5.3 boards), and Rashad Bishop (8.2/3.6) support Gates on the front line though Cronin will rotate a third veteran forward, Darnell Wilks for 15-plus minutes. Another senior, Larry Davis, lends depth to the backcourt.
Will familiarity breed contempt? The names remain, but their game has changed. The March version of the Bearcats is a far cry from the January edition that visited South Bend. Cincinnati is confident offensively, cohesive as a unit after the early February dust-up and suspension of Gates, and determined to prove doubters wrong. (The sixth-place team in the Big East remains unranked nationally despite 25 victories?)
They'll defend Ben Hansbrough, the newly-minted Big East Player of the Year, aggressively on the perimeter and have enough size and quickness inside to recover against a deft collection of interior Irish passers. Notre Dame's ability to finish at the rim will prove crucial tonight as few shots will go uncontested by Cronin's crew.
Tonight's matchup pits the league's two hottest teams (Notre Dame has won 11 of 12; Cincinnati 6 of 7) and a pair of seasoned rosters whose combatants have squared off three previous times over the last 13 months. Look for more than a few testy moments between the aggressive Bearcats and Hansbrough and for the team that can find – and succeed at – the free throw line, to prevail in a low-scoring slugfest.
Notre Dame 68 Cincinnati 63
Season Predictions (Major/conference games only): 17-6; 14-8-1 against the spread.
Notre Dame's Player Capsules will be published separately.