Since facing West Virginia one month ago, the Bearcats have been a middling 3-3, which places them squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. Like the Mountaineers, UC failed to win in a road trip to Seton Hall, and now finds itself needing, in all likelihood, at least two more wins to grasp an NCAA at-large berth.
Working in UC's favor are healthy RPI and strength of schedule numbers, but a potential 7-9 conference record (assuming a loss to WVU), and its record down the stretch (4-5) are cause for concern. The Bearcats missed a major chance to secure a bid when it just missed knocking off Villanova at home before suffering the letdown at Seton Hall.
UC continues to use a balanced attack as its keys to staying competitive. Four players, including James White, Eric Hicks, Devan Downey and Jihad Muhammad tally more than ten points per game, and two more (Armein Kirkland and Cedric McGowan) average 9.7 and 8.2, respectively. Muhammad, since moving into the starting lineup, has been particularly tough during Cincinnati's last eight games, scoring 130 points during that stretch. With his minutes on the rise, UC has added another scoring threat that makes them even more difficult to defend.
In many cases, this game might appear to be a question of motivation. Cincinnati desperately needs a win to bolster its flagging at-large NCAA bid hopes, while the Mountaineers, while playing for better seeding in the big dance, are pretty much locked in to their spot in the Big East tournament.
|Sat Mar. 4
Fifth Third Arena
WVU 20-8, 11-4
UC 18-11, 7-8
WVU - 22
UC - 32
Another interesting matchup to watch in this game is WVU's defense against powerful Eric Hicks, who dunked more times than a cop in a doughnut shop against the Mountaineers the first time out. Kevin Pittsnogle displayed much better post defense against Pitt's Aaron Gray on Monday, which should help, but the key will be to keep Hicks away from the boards. He scored many of his points on stickbacks in the first meeting, and must be kept off the offensive glass in order to prevent a repeat. That's easier said than done, as his blend of power and quickness makes him one of the most dangerous retrievers in the league.
Another key for West Virginia is to continue to find supplements to the scoring efforts of Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey. J.D. Collins and Joe Herber have come up big in that regard in WVU's last two games, and it's no coincidence that the Mountaineers have come out victorious in both. If WVU can continue to put four players in double figures each time out, it will be, in the words of Norman Dale, "a tough team to beat".
UC: Eric Hicks (Ankle) Probable
Despite the strength of Hicks on the boards, UC has been outrebounded by an average of 1.5 boards per game this year.
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With five points against UC, Kevin Pittsnogle will move into the number ten spot on WVU's all-tie scoring list. Damian Owens (1,616 points) currently holds that position. With a decent postseason run, Pittsnogle could move as high as sixth on the list, where Lowes Moore currently resides with 1,696 points.
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Cincinnati has been to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments – a streak that is certainly on the line this year. However, the Bearcats' run of 16 straight postseason appearances will be extended, as UC will certainly get an NIT bid if it falls short of the Big Dance.
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While Mike Gansey has passed 1,000 points for his collegiate career, he also still has a chance to pass that mark for his West Virginia career as well. He currently has 907 points in a Mountaineer uniform. Like Pittsnogle and his assault on the all-time scoring list, Gansey would probably need at least four games in the postseason to have a shot at the mark.
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Cincinnati has lost 14 consecutive games against ranked opponents.