Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin is attempting to lead the Bearcats to a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. If the blueprint for Cincinnati's success looks familiar, it should.
Cronin's has built his program in the same manner Jamie Dixon has at Pitt. The Bearcats, above all else, put an emphasis on defense and rebounding.
If the Panthers did not have a firm handle on that fact before the Big East Conference schedule got under way they surely know it now. Cincinnati came to Petersen Events Center and beat Pitt at its own game on New Year's Eve, dominating the boards and clamping down on defense for a 70-61 victory that kick-started an early season slide for the Panthers.
"After the first game, you feel like you got punched in the mouth," Pitt senior guard Tray Woodall said. "Once you get hit once, you get your guard up. Guys are much more prepared and locked in this time."
The No. 23 Panthers, winners of six of their past seven, have a chance to show how far they have come tonight when they visit No. 17 Cincinnati at Fifth Third Arena.
The Panthers held an eight-point lead at halftime in the first meeting, but they caved under the pressure of the Bearcats, who wore down the Panthers in the second half with an aggressive and physical brand of basketball the home team did not expect.
Cincinnati grabbed nine more rebounds than Pitt in the second half and shot 48 percent from the field to turn the tables, outscoring the Panthers, 44-27, in the final 20 minutes.
"We know how they play now," junior forward J.J. Moore said. "We're just going to go out there and compete harder than we did when they came in here. They played harder in that game. They outrebounded us and played more physical than us. Now we're ready. We're mentally and physically prepared."
Matchup: No. 23 Pitt (19-5, 7-4 Big East) vs. No. 17 Cincinnati (18-5, 6-4), 6 p.m. today, Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati.
TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Pitt: Defeated Seton Hall, 56-46, Monday night at home. ... Has won six of the past seven games. ... Lost to Cincinnati, 70-61, Dec. 31 in the conference opener. ... Is 6-3 against Cincinnati since the Bearcats joined the Big East, but has lost the past two games in the series. ... Senior G Tray Woodall (10.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg) needs 11 points to reach 1,000 for his career. ... Junior F Lamar Patterson (10.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) registered his second double-double of the season against Seton Hall when he had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Cincinnati: Coming off 54-50 loss Wednesday at Providence. ... Is 10-3 at home this season but 2-2 in Big East games with losses to St. John's and Notre Dame. ... Led by G Sean Kilpatrick (18.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Cashmere Wright (13.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg) and Jaquon Parker (10.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg.
Hidden stat: Pitt is 15-2 when leading at halftime this season. The two losses came vs. Michigan and Cincinnati.
Cincinnati's dominance in that game was not a fluke. The Bearcats enter the game second in the Big East in rebounding margin, mere percentage points behind Pitt, which has ascended to the top spot again after some dominant performances in recent weeks.
The Panthers are outrebounding teams by an average of 11 per game over the past seven games. They also have held the past seven opponents to an average of 55.4 points per game.
"We've improved, there's no question about it," Dixon said. "We're playing better basketball. Teams are going through their ups and downs right now and we're getting better, and that's what you want to be doing."
Cincinnati guards Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick were offensive forces in the first meeting, combining for 34 points. Wright scored 12 of his game-high 18 points after halftime and hit a number of big shots down the stretch when the Bearcats pulled away.
"We let him get comfortable," Woodall said. "In the first half, we bothered him."
Kilpatrick scored 12 of his 16 after the intermission as he and Wright continually found ways to penetrate past Pitt's guards for scoring opportunities.
Woodall said the familiarity with the Bearcats will help Pitt game plan better for this game.
"It definitely helps," Woodall said. "I know we're a totally different team than we were in December. I think we're much more prepared.
"It's a test for us. We know exactly what we're going to get. We know their offensive sets from the first time."
The Cincinnati game is the first of an important three-game stretch against ranked teams. After the Bearcats, the Panthers travel to No. 24 Marquette next Saturday and then come home to face No. 25 Notre Dame two days later.
"They're seeing the results and recognizing it and building off that," Dixon said of his players. "That's where you want to be this time of the year. I don't think we've played our best basketball. You see the young guys playing better and that's exciting. We'll keep building off that, but we have a lot of room for improvement."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published February 9, 2013 5:00 AM