Head coach: Mick Cronin - 10th year as head coach (201-120): 69-24 in three years at Murray State; 132-96 in seventh year at Cincinnati. Led Bearcats to the Sweet 16 in 2011-12.
You should know: The Bearcats have lost four of the last five and five of the last eight, although their performances on the road have been exemplary. They've won at Pittsburgh, Rutgers, DePaul and Seton Hall, and their three losses on the road have been by two to Syracuse, four to Providence, and by seven in overtime to Connecticut?Cincinnati ranks fifth nationally in rebounding with a 41.0 average. The Bearcats have an impressive 395 offensive rebounds in 27 games (14.6 average). Cincinnati leads the Big East in rebounding and also ranks first in rebounding margin at plus-7.7?Cincinnati struggles shooting the basketball. The Bearcats are 14th in the Big East in field-goal shooting percentage (.411) and 14th in free-throw percentage (.650)?Notre Dame got off to a good start to the Big East season with a 66-60 road victory over Cincinnati on Jan. 7 to raise its record to 2-0. Both teams made nine three-point attempts with the Irish converting .563 of their 16 three-point attempts. All five Irish starters scored in double figures, including 19 by Jerian Grant and 12 by Scott Martin, who made 4-of-7 three-pointers. The Irish held the Bearcats to just seven offensive rebounds. The victory was Notre Dame's 12th in row?Notre Dame holds a 9-4 series lead over the Bearcats, including victories in four of the last five. Part of that streak was an 89-51 Notre Dame victory over Cincinnati in the 2011 Big East Tournament. The Irish have never lost to Cincinnati in four home games?Cincinnati and Notre Dame played for the first time in 1939, and did not play one another for another 36 years. After an NCAA tournament clash in 1976, it would be another 24 years before the two teams squared off on the basketball court.
Top losses: Dion Dixon (13.0 ppg., 3.4 rpg.), Yancey Gates (12.2 ppg., 8.9 rpg., 98 offensive rebounds).
Top players: Sean Kilpatrick, a 6-foot-4, 221-pound junior, has been a steady force for the Bearcats, ranking fourth in the Big East in scoring at 18.0 points per game while grabbing 5.4 rebounds per contest. Kilpatrick has scored at least 15 points in 10 of 14 Big East games. He scored 36 points against Marquette early in the Big East season. He is one of the most frequent three-point shooters in the country with 207 attempts. He made 6-of-15 against Syracuse, 5-of-14 versus Marquette, and 5-of-15 against Seton Hall. Kilpatrick is converting just .329 of his attempts and is a solid .726 from the free-throw line.
If Kilpatrick isn't hoisting them up from beyond the arc, 6-foot-0, 178-pound senior Cashmere Wright is. Wright's 153 attempts, which are No. 2 on the squad to Kilpatrick, would lead the Irish. He's made 56 and is converting at a .366 pace. Wright is second on the team in scoring at 13.3 and leads the team in assists with a modest 3.3 average. Wright scored at least 20 points in three out of four games during an early-January stretch. But since a 5-of-10 shooting performance from three-point range against St. John's, Wright has converted just 16-of-71 (.225) over the last 11 games, including a 1-of-11 performance against Pittsburgh.
JaQuon Parker is Cincinnati's third player in double-figure scoring at 11.0. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound senior is the Bearcats' best three-point shooter at .418 (33-of-79), although he doesn't shoot nearly as frequently as Kilpatrick and Wright. Parker is second on the team in rebounding at 4.8 per game. But he's been a real liability at the free-throw line, converting just .557 (64-of-115) while ranking second on the team in attempts.
Head coach Mick Cronin uses seven other players on a regular basis to supplement what the big three for Cincinnati offers. Titus Rubles, a 6-foot-7, 207-pound junior, averages 6.2 points and a team-leading 5.8 rebounds. The closer to the basket, the better for Rubles. He has missed 33-of-37 three-point attempts (.108).
The Bearcats offer ample size with 6-foot-10, 236-pound senior Cheikh Mbodj, 6-foot-8, 213-pound junior Justin Jackson, 7-foot-1, 230-pound junior David Nyarsuk, and 6-foot-7, 187-pound freshman Shaquille Thomas.
Mbodj averages 5.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He's tied with Parker for the team-lead in offensive rebounds with 54 and has 66 blocked shots. Jackson is tied for second on the team in rebounding at 5.4 per game. Nyarsuk has contributed less lately, playing single-digit minutes in six of the last eight games and scoring less than a point per game in that span.
Also contributing are 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore Jermaine Sanders (3.3 ppg., 2.2 rpg.) and 6-foot-2, 174-pound Ge'Lawn Guyn (2.4 ppg.).
Prister's take: Cincinnati is reeling, which means either the Irish are catching them at the right time, or the Bearcats are due for a breakout game. Purcell Pavilion generally isn't the setting for an opposing team's turnaround, but in this instance, Cincinnati truly is the wounded bear fighting for its life.
This is a huge game for the Bearcats, who begin the day in 10th place in the Big East, a game behind St. John's, Pittsburgh and Villanova in the loss column. If Cincinnati has a chance to land an NCAA tournament berth, those are three teams they're going to have to leapfrog over the final four Big East regular-season games.
They'll have to make their hay with trips to Notre Dame and Louisville, and home tilts against Connecticut and South Florida after losing four-out-of-five and five of the last eight. On one hand, the Bearcats have run into some tough luck because six of their seven losses have come by seven points or less, including a 73-66 overtime loss at Connecticut Thursday.
On the other hand, Cincinnati has frittered away opportunities to remain among the upper echelon of the Big East with a 3-4 home record in conference play, including recent setbacks at Fifth Third Arena to Pittsburgh by 10 and Georgetown by seven.
If anything, the Bearcats have been much more dangerous on the road where they are 4-3 in conference play, which includes a two-point loss at Syracuse and a four-point loss to Providence.
Cincinnati is having difficulty scoring the basketball, tallying 55 points or less in three of its last four games. But with the fifth best rebounding average (41.0 per game) in the country and an average of 21.8 three-point attempts per game, the Bearcats are a legitimate threat every time they take the court.
Notre Dame needs to take advantage of Cincinnati's poor shooting, both from the field (.411, 14th in the Big East) and the free-throw line (.650, also 14th in the Big East). The Irish should be well rested after a six-game, 17-day trek that saw them win four times to remain in the thick of their bid for a double-bye in the Big East tournament.
A victory gives the Irish their 10th in Big East play, which virtually assures them of an NCAA tournament bid. That possibility looked pretty grim eight games ago when Scott Martin was sidelined with a knee injury. Martin is attempting to make a comeback against the Bearcats, although a more realistic return likely would come Saturday, March 2 at Marquette. Mike Brey has dipped deeper in his bench in Martin's absence, and the Irish now have four big men making solid contributions.
Brey said after the Pittsburgh game that his team got back to its physical ways, which was absent in losses to Syracuse and Providence. If Jack Cooley et al stay in that physical frame of mind and prevent the Bearcats from lighting a fire beyond the three-point line, they should come away with a victory, which would be their 37th in their last 51 Big East games and 41st in the last 55.
Cincinnati is always a tough match-up for the Irish because of their depth, length, athleticism, and conscience-less approach to attempting three-pointers. Buoyed by that huge win at Pittsburgh six days ago, the Irish should come into this nationally-televised game with willing participation from the student body to secure their fourth straight season of double-digit conference victories.
Even if the Irish lose at Marquette and at Louisville, home wins over Cincinnati and St. John's would make it 11 victories in the Big East, which likely would earn them a No. 5 seed heading to Madison Square Garden.
Don't expect this one to be pretty. It could be a real slugfest with both teams using their full complement of fouls.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 62, Cincinnati 57
Prister's record: 21-6 straight up; 11-13 vs. points