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Key stretch: Cincinnati

7/21/2010

Every game counts, of course, especially in a season that's only 12 games long. But we also know that certain parts of the schedule can be more crucial than others. So beginning today, I'm going to look at a key stretch of three or four games for each Big East team that could make or break its 2010 season.

We're going to go in a slightly different order this time around, using last year's conference standings as our guide. So starting off is defending champion Cincinnati.

Key stretch: at West Virginia (Nov. 13), Rutgers (Nov. 20), at Connecticut (Nov. 27), Pittsburgh (Dec. 4)

Breakdown: The champs certainly don't get an easy path to the finish line this year. They'll face the four teams I believe have the best chance of knocking them from their perch on four successive Saturdays. Cincinnati has won the past two Big East crowns precisely because of its ability to beat these teams; the only one of this quartet that has toppled the Bearcats since 2008 is UConn two years ago.

Still, one has to wonder if Cincinnati can navigate this gauntlet a third straight year, especially with road challenges in Morgantown and East Hartford that seem especially daunting. The Bearcats defense will have to finish the year better than it did last season against what could well be four very good offenses. And the weather at UConn in late November could be an issue for a passing team like Cincinnati.

Yet it's probably better that this tough portion of the schedule comes at the end, as Butch Jones and his staff will have their system fully in place and ready for the stretch drive.

Prediction: If Cincinnati goes 4-0 here, then you can deliver another Big East title to Clifton. But I think these games are all virtual toss-ups -- remember that last year's wins against UConn, West Virginia and Pitt were all nail biters -- and that the odds won't go in the Bearcats' favor again. I like Cincinnati to go 2-2 in this stretch, falling in Morgantown, winning against Rutgers at home and splitting the other two.