Gut Check

IrishEyes previews tonight's game vs. Cincinnati – the first of two must-win contests for 4-5 Notre Dame this week.

In the first of three Big East rematches to be played in South Bend over the next four weeks, Notre Dame (15-7, 4-5) plays host to 14-7 (5-4) Cincinnati tonight at the Purcell Pavilion. Tip-off is set for 9 pm (ET) on ESPN2.

Below is a closer look at tonight's matchup between the Bearcats and the Irish.

At a Glance

Notre Dame: 15-7 (4-5)
  • Losses: Northwestern (Chicago Classic) and Loyola Marymount; at UConn, at Cincinnati, vs. Syracuse, at Villanova, at Rutgers
  • Best Win: West Virginia
  • Losses for the Selection Committee's Consideration: Northwestern; home vs. LMU; at Cincinnati; at Rutgers

Cincinnati: 14-7 (5-4)
  • Losses: Gonzaga (OT); at Xavier (OT); at UAB; Pittsburgh; at Seton Hall, at St. John's and at Louisville
  • Best wins: Connecticut in the Big East opener; neutral site wins vs. Maryland and Vanderbilt. Notre Dame…at least if both teams are in the running for a bid in mid-March.
  • Losses for the Selection Committee's Consideration: at UAB, at Seton Hall, at St. John's.

Meet the Bearcats

Fourth-year Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin employs a deep rotation, regularly awarding 10-plus minutes to 8-9 players. While disgruntled Irish fans question the lack of defensive focus and toughness from Mike Brey's recent squads, Bearcats fans likewise lament Cronin's tendency to "over-coach" and micromanage the on-court affairs.

Cronin might have unwillingly set the tone for tonight's contest with his post-game comments after the Bearcats 60-58 win over the Irish on January 16 stating the Cincinnati defense "baited" Harangody into taking an abundance of jump shots (Harangody finished 5-20 from the floor in the loss).

  • 6'5" freshman forward Lance Stephenson (12.2, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 turnovers) has seen a mild decrease in playing time (and shot attempts) after injuring his ankle prior to a January 20 win over South Florida. The enigmatic playmaker can get in the lane and has the ability to create offense for his teammates, but his carelessness with the basketball (10 assists and 20 turnovers in his last six games played) limits the Bearcats half-court efficiency.

    The biggest drawback to the first-year player's game is his exceptionally poor shot selection (9-47 from beyond the arc) and the lack of polish/on-court maturity as a true freshman that was initially handed the keys to the Bearcats ignition. His veteran teammates have stepped up over the last four games (since the last meeting between Notre Dame and Cincinnati) and the precocious freshman has taken a bit of a backseat as a result. Nevertheless, Stephenson's an athlete that can give the shaky Irish defense trouble Thursday night.

  • Speaking of giving the Irish trouble…6'9" 260-pound center Yancey Gates has burned Notre Dame for 26 points and 21 rebounds (10 offensive) in back-to-back wins over the Irish dating back to February 2009. Gates added the game-winning tip-in of his own miss as the Bearcats stole one from the Irish in Cincy, 60-58 on January 16.

    Though Gates accumulated 13 boards vs. Luke Harangody and the Irish defense in that matchup, he's managed just 14 rebounds in three games played since. Gates is limited offensively, but he's a physical presence and gets fired up to play against the Irish. Barring foul trouble, he'll be a major factor again tonight.

  • After scoring 34 points vs. the Irish last February (courtesy of five three point buckets and a 19-22 effort from the free throw line), Deonta Vaughn was contained in the teams' meeting three weeks ago, finishing with 15 points (and no assists) while missing six of nine from beyond the arc.

    A true gamer, Vaughn's three deep balls occurred when the Bearcats needed a score the most, draining long jumpers when Cincy trailed the Irish by 7, 6, and 7 points at periods throughout the contest. Though he's prone to off nights, Vaughn is the team's floor general and best scorer. If Vaughn has an off night, Notre Dame will win going away in South Bend.

  • Forward Rashad Bishop came off the bench to score 10 points with 5 rebounds vs. the Irish in the first meeting. The junior has hit for double figures in three of his last four outings, playing his best game of the season in a starting role Saturday vs. Providence, finishing with 16 points (6-9 from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc) and 6 rebounds in the four-point Cincinnati win.

  • Also putting forth his best effort in the Bearcats last game was point guard Cashmere Wright (24 points, 9-11 from the floor, 5 assists and no turnovers). Wright was benched in the first game between the teams with veteran guard Larry Davis taking his place in the lineup. After scoring 21 points vs. the Irish last February, Davis produced no points and 3 turnovers in 19 minutes vs. Notre Dame this season. He's played sparingly in Big East action with the exception of the contest vs. the Irish.

  • Junior forward Darnell Wilks contributed 10 points and four boards in just 16 minutes in Saturday's win over Friars. Wilks contributed eight rebounds, three fouls, and an extra dose of chippie in 12 minutes of action vs. Notre Dame in January.
  • Backup guard Dion Dixon scored seven points but missed seven of nine shots in 24 minutes vs. the Irish in January. Dixon's playing time has decreased since and he hasn't scored in just 12 minutes of court time over the last two games.
  • Though he played just three minutes in the first meeting, look for 6'11" 230-pound junior forward Ibrahima Thomas to see some time in a defensive rotation vs. Harangody tonight.
  • Backup center Steve Toyloy earned a start vs. the Irish in the first meeting, likely in an effort to give away a few fouls (and bang) Harangody early, but the senior played just 13 minutes as Bishop (above) helped key the Bearcats early comeback.

Previous Meeting – January 16 2010

The Bearcats defeated the Irish in Cincinnati, 60-58, on tip-in bucket by Yancey Gates with two seconds remaining. The second half featured 11 lead changes and six ties. Tim Abromaitis led all scorers with 16 but the Irish missed 10 of 19 free throw attempts and were outrebounded 48-28 on the afternoon.

A full recap of the game can be found here.

Stats and Streaks

  • Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough rank No. 2 and No. 3 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. The pair has combined for 73 assists and just 19 turnovers in the last seven contests (dating back to ND's win over West Virginia).
  • Jackson has played a staggering 350 of a possible 360 total minutes through the team's first nine Big East contests (Luke Harangody has logged 344 in that same span).
  • The Irish stood 3-1 in conference play entering the season's first contest vs. the Bearcats on January 16. Since, Notre Dame has since lost four of five (the sixth such occurrence for the program since the 2004 season) while the Bearcats have emerged as victors in 3 of 4.
  • Tim Abromaitis missed 10 of 15 three-point shots on Notre Dame's two-game road trip, dropping him from first to a tie among the nation's top 3-point marksmen (47.7 percent).
  • The Irish hold a 5-4 advantage over the Bearcats in the all-time series (the first contest played and won by the Irish in 1939). The teams split NCAA Tournament matchups in the mid-70s and likewise have split the teams' four meetings during the Harangody-era, with Notre Dame winning by 12 in February 2007 and 17 in January 2008. Cincinnati has won two since, taking the aforementioned 60-58 battle less than three weeks ago as well as notching a 10-point victory at the tail end of Notre Dame's seven-game losing skid last February.
  • Notre Dame has been installed as 3-point favorite for tonight's contest.

  • From the Notre Dame athletics department: Fundraising efforts held in conjunction with the Notre Dame men's basketball game against DePaul (Jan. 23) and women's basketball contest versus West Virginia (Jan. 24) raised more than $250,000 in donations for the relief efforts in Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Notre Dame donated full gate receipts and net concession revenue from both games. In addition, a collection organized by the Notre Dame Student-Athlete Advisory Council raised more than $25,000 from fans and alumni who contributed during the games. The Notre Dame Monogram Club also added a $10,000 matching gift to the student total.

Prediction

Irish head coach Mike Brey alluded to the possibility of a 9-9 conference finish being (plausibly) worthy of NCAA consideration. Not only do I believe this to be inaccurate, but I don't think Notre Dame would pass the lips of a single committee member in the selection process, not with the loss to Rutgers; not with the mid-December home loss to Loyola Marymount; and not with what would likely be (considering the hypothetical .500 record) no more than two road victories in nine conference games.

Tonight's opponent has struggled away from home as well, as Cincinnati is just 1-5 this season in Big East road games (3-6 last season) with the lone win occurring at, you guessed it – Rutgers.

The Joyce Center floor at the Purcell Pavilion has been an elixir for the Irish during the Harangody/Jackson era, though curiously, Jackson has connected on just 6 of 25 shots in conference play in South Bend this season. (Jackson also owns an incredible 36-7 assist-to-turnover ratio in those four games.)

Notre Dame plays with more energy and toughness on both ends of the floor in South Bend. They attack each missed shot off the glass, play the passing lanes, draw fouls with determined penetration and absolutely destroy opposing defenses from the outside, with Tim Abromaitis doing most of the damage, nailing 18 of 32 shots from beyond the arc in four conference home games.

The redshirt-junior has scored a minimum of 15 points (including games of 20-plus on five occasions) in every home start this season and hit 65 of 114 field goals in that span.

As well, a return to South Bend should provide a friendlier shooting background for the anything-but-shy Harangody, who's hit just 42 of his last 106 shots and managed to squeeze off 20 or more shots in seven of nine conference games this season (in those games, Harangody is just 67 of 153 from the field).

But the Bearcats won't sit back passively vs. Irish shooters. They attacked Notre Dame's perimeter with vigor in the first matchup, holding the Irish to a season-low 10 assists while accumulating a 20-rebound edge (48-28) including a ridiculous 16-2 advantage on the offensive glass in the first meeting.

Mid-January's last second two-point loss ranks as "the one that got away" from Brey's Irish this season. The Irish missed 10 of 19 free throws; they held the Bearcats to a 32 percent shooting effort (29 percent from long range) and held a seven-point halftime edge. Harangody missed 15 of 20 shots but the Irish still had a chance to force overtime with one box out before the buzzer.

Expect the bulk of the close calls to go Notre Dame's way tonight. Expect 20-plus from both Harangody and Abromaitis; and expect another 15 combined assists vs. 5 turnovers from the backcourt duo of Jackson and Hansbrough. And expect an inspired effort from junior forward Tyrone Nash, who managed a stat line of 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 shot attempts, and 5 fouls in 13 embarrassing minutes in the January loss.

A win muddles the middle of the Big East standings, with seven teams sitting at 6-4, 5-4, or 5-5 entering the weekend.

Notre Dame 70 Cincinnati 62


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