On Serve?

Mike Brey's Fighting Irish remain one of the nation's best when playing on their home floor. Can his youthful group pull out its first win away from home tonight in the Queen City?

In theory, it should work.

Head coach Mike Brey and his Notre Dame squad could play its way into one of the last of 68 NCAA Tournament spots in March by simply doing what it usually does:

Win every home game.

Notre Dame has won 28 straight on the Joyce Center Floor. Prior to that streak, the Irish prevailed in a program-record 45 straight before dropping three (a 6-3 conference finish at home) in the winter of 2008, and thus missing the Big Dance.

Brey's Irish haven't lost at home since February 18, 2010, a one-point defeat to St. John's in what was also the first game that season played without Luke Harangody following the big man's knee injury. Notre Dame then reeled off wins in six of the season's final eight to finish an improbable 10-8 in league play with a Big East semi-finals appearance to boot, securing an NCAA berth.

They're a head-shaking 40-5 vs. Big East foes in South Bend since the beginning of the 2007 conference season.

But with matchups against the nation's current #1, #8, and #20 teams over its next four home contests, the Irish won't likely finish another conference slate 9-0 in South Bend.

Tonight's contest with Cincinnati looms as the first out-of-Indiana hurdle.

.500 or Bust

Perhaps the key to Notre Dame's season is this: Can the Irish win a road game before their first home defeat? Further, can they win enough road games – with matchups at Cincinnati, #10 Louisville, Rutgers, Seton Hall, #9 Connecticut, West Virginia, Villanova, St. John's, and #9 Georgetown – to offset potential home defeats vs. powers Syracuse, UConn, or Marquette…or even an unforeseen home court upset from the likes of intense West Virginia or improved DePaul, et al?

Tonight's contest vs. Cincinnati affords Notre Dame, fresh off a blowout of then-#22 Pittsburgh, its first chance at a conference road victory. The 9-5 Irish are 0-5 away from South Bend this winter and have lost seven of their last eight away from home dating back to the start of the Big East Tournament last March.

(Notre Dame was a solid road team overall last season, winning five of nine in a lights-out Big East.)

The Bearcats, (11-3, 1-0 in conference) are beatable, though also markedly better at home than on the road, winning

Tonight will be Cincinnati's conference home opener and a welcome back of sorts for a trio of big men: Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis, all suspended six games as part of an ugly mid-December brawl vs. cross-town rival Xavier. The Bearcats won all six contests including a three-point win at Pittsburgh on New Year's Day to open conference play.

Gates' presence is vexing for the Irish as the Bearcats beast will be a tough cover for Notre Dame's three centers, Jack Cooley and backups Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer.

Game Notes

Mike Brey is 6-2 vs. the Bearcats with both losses occurring in Cincinnati.

  • Notre Dame has defeated Cincinnati in three straight including a 38-point annihilation of the Bearcats in last year's Big East quarterfinals. The Irish last lost to Cincinnati in their most recent visit to the Queen City, dropping a 60-58 decision thanks to a Gates tip-in at the buzzer in mid-January, 2010.

  • The Irish are 19-4 in their last 23 Big East contests and a remarkable 12-1 in their last 13 regular season in-conference games…

  • Notre Dame has enjoyed 20+ point nights from seven players already this season: Alex Dragicevich, Tim Abromaitis, Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton, Jack Cooley, Jerian Grant and Scott Martin

  • Notre Dame is 8-1 when it scores 60 or more points this season; 1-4 when they fall below the number…

  • Cincinnati is favored by eight points over the Irish tonight with the game Over/Under (total points) listed at 131…

  • Tip-off is set for 7:00 (ET) at the All-State arena. Game coverage is available on ESPN3 and ESPN Fullcourt (Cable Package).

Contest Keys

It's simple: in South Bend, Notre Dame protects the basketball, knocks down open shots, and gets to the foul line early and often. Away from South Bend? None of the above.

Key to tonight's contest is the floor game of point guard and newly minted co-captain Eric Atkins. Can Atkins breakdown the Bearcats defense enough to create openings for his teammates or himself at the charity stripe? To date, the sophomore has struggled away from home, turning it over a whopping 16 times vs. just 7 assists – stark contrast to the player that led the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, albeit in a sixth-man role.

Three Thoughts:

  • The Cooley v. Gates matchup can't be one-sided, but for that to be a reality, Cooley must avoid foul trouble and enjoy early successes – those usually occur after a few power boards or defensive plays by the excitable junior big man. It starts on the defensive low-block and backboard for the best Irish big. From there, points flow naturally...
  • Notre Dame's perimeter defense will need to pick its poison: the drive or the perimeter J – aside from sharp-shooting sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick, opponents should choose the latter vs. the scattershot Bearcats…
  • Junior guard Jaquon Parker has emerged for head coach Mick Cronin's crew – Jerian Grant will draw the assignment and must match his aggressiveness going to the hole while keeping Parker off the Irish backboard on the defensive end…

Prediction – Cincinnati 68 Notre Dame 56

Until Notre Dame can avoid major scoring droughts away from home, it's impossible to favor the improved, but still undermanned Irish.

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