Friday, March 18, 2011, 4:03 p.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin needed a nanosecond to decide if he would prefer to face a non-conference opponent in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Absolutely, he said after the Bearcats win over Missouri late Thursday nightearly Friday morning at Verizon Center.
But thats what sixth-seeded Cincinnati faces Saturday at 9:40 p.m. when it takes on third-seeded Connecticut seeking its first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade.
The Big East started the tournament representing 11 of the 68 slots, a testament to the size (16 teams) and quality (six in the final regular-season Associated Press Top 25).
The selection committee almost always avoided having conference rivals meet each other until at least the Sweet 16 but changed course this year. In addition to Cincy-UConn, Marquette-Syracuse could also meet depending on Friday nights result.
When we saw the selection and how early we could end up playing a Big East team, we kind of laughed about it, Cincinnati junior forward Yancy Gates said.
Kind of laughed about it mostly because of Cincinnatis luck.
Yes, the Bearcats were a No. 6 seed. And their reward, once they dispatched Missouri, was Connecticut, which won five games in as many days to capture the Big East tournament and routed Bucknell on Thursday.
UConn is hot right now, Gates said. But I figure if we can hold down the young guys, we should be OK.
The young guys helped the Huskies win the teams only meeting, 67-59, in Cincinnati in late February.
Jeremy Lamb scored 17 points and Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier 11 apiece. All are freshmen.
They had lost their previous two games and we had won three in a row and coasted in feeling too good about ourselves, overconfident because we swept them the year before, Cronin said. The players didnt understand all the things the freshmen bring to the table.
The Bearcats know Connecticut super guard Kemba Walker is going to get his points it's about containing the complementary players who will help them reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 10 years.
I figure if we can hold the young guys, we should be OK, Yates said.
Cincinnati-Connecticut is the nightcap of Saturdays third round, and those who attended Thursdays quartet of games deserve more drama. (Butler-Pittsburgh at 7:10 p.m. is the opener.)
Butler and Old Dominion was an average game with a great ending, capped by Matt Howards buzzer-beating tip-in.
From then on, though, it was snoozer time, the fans better off touring Chinatown in search of a St. Patricks Day libation.
Game 2: Pittsburgh 74, UNC-Asheville 51. The Panthers pulled away in the final 15 minutes.
Game 3: Connecticut 81, Bucknell 52. The game was over early.
Game 4: Cincinnati 78, Missouri 63. Cincy rebounded from an early seven-point deficit.
Compare the Washington pods combined 69-point margin of victory (and no lower-seed wins) to the other four sites on Thursday: Tucson 39 (none), Tampa 40 (none) and Denver 27 (three).
D.C. needs some hoops drama Saturday night, and Cincinnati-Connecticut might deliver.
After the bracket was revealed and before the tournament started, Cronin said he spoke with Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. Yes, its great each team advanced, but ideally, they would face each other later in the month.
The Big East is brutal, Cronin said. Weve already played 20 games. Youd like to avoid it. I understand the tournament committee would like to avoid it, too, but its obviously unavoidable.
Contact O'Halloran at firstname.lastname@example.org.