If Notre Dame can emerge from the talent-heavy Big East tournament with the title, it would have an argument for a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
One of the many difficult opponents it would have to get through to win its first tournament championship is Cincinnati.The fourth-ranked Irish will try to stay hot as they take on the No. 25 Bearcats on Thursday night in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.Notre Dame (25-5) closed the regular season with four straight wins, including a 70-67 win at then-No. 16 Connecticut on Saturday to earn a double-bye in the conference tournament.The second-seeded Irish moved up four spots in the latest AP poll, earning their highest ranking since being fourth in December 1980.Notre Dame looks to continue the success in the Big East tournament, where it lost in the semifinals last year to eventual champion West Virginia."We've been looking forward to this all year," senior Carleton Scott said Wednesday. "We've been working hard to this point. Now it's just continue the job."The Irish have already won some hardware with Ben Hansbrough earning conference player of the year and Mike Brey being named the league's coach of the year. They, along with Tim Abromaitis, who was a repeat winner as the Big East scholar-athlete of the year, took home the honors in a ceremony in New York on Tuesday.Hansbrough's emergence has the Irish in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after being picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches' poll. The senior is averaging 18.5 points, third in the conference, and has scored 26.0 points per game over the last four contests.The Irish are going to need him to stay hot given the level of talent the team will face during the tournament, but they believe they are in good position to make a run."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," Brey said, referring to Tuesday's Big East awards ceremony.Hansbrough and the Irish defeated the Bearcats (25-7) 66-58 on Jan. 19 in a game in which all five Notre Dame starters scored in double figures. It was far from Hansbrough's best performance, however, as he missed 7 of 8 field goals but still finished with 13 points.While Cincinnati shot 38.3 percent in that game, the Bearcats also have plenty of momentum now. They have won six of seven, including an 87-61 rout of South Florida on Wednesday in the second round.Yancy Gates scored a career-high 25 points, shooting 10 of 11 from the field, while leading scorer Dion Dixon added 21. Dixon was held to 10 points in the loss to Notre Dame, shooting 4 of 10.The Bearcats have held their last three opponents under 39 percent shooting, and they haven't given up more than 67 points in their last four games.While it once seemed NIT-bound, Cincinnati has likely already secured an NCAA tournament berth. The Bearcats, though, are looking for more."I don't have to worry about motivating," coach Mick Cronin said. "Teams we beat twice are ahead of us, teams that have more losses than us are ranked ahead of us."It's unfair, and I told these guys, they need to win now for them."The Bearcats have never reached the conference tournament semifinals since joining the Big East in 2005.The winner would advance to take on either Marquette or Louisville.