BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - If you look through the record of Ryan Fletcher's career with the Cincinnati Bearcats, you will not find mention of any award he's won as a college basketball player.
So now he has one: player of the game in UC's second-round Great Alaska Shootout victory over Iowa State, voted upon by members of the media seated at courtside.
It is not the Oscar Robertson Trophy or even Conference USA player of the week, but it is definitely a step forward for Fletcher.
"I think he can play a lot better," coach Bob Huggins said. "Fletch has got that nice touch, and he's got that big body. I think positively he can play better."
The important thing for Fletcher is he's playing well at all, given the short window of opportunity available to him - six games - before transfer forward Jermaine Tate becomes eligible to claim some of the playing time at power forward.
The biggest of those games came Saturday night when No. 15 UC knocked off No. 1 Duke in the Shootout title game. In 37 minutes, Fletcher had six points, six rebounds, five assists and the winning TD pass. Plus, he was assigned to defend Blue Devils center Elton Brand - a serious candidate for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, by the way - for much of the game. Brand had 12 points and seven boards.
With UC employing five first-year players in its rotation and trying to sneak freshman center Donald Little in the game when possible, Huggins believes the Bearcats will get better with experience. It's also likely they will improve when point guard Michael Horton is able to return from his foot injury and, most important, when Tate is eligible for the Dec. 14 Nicholls State game.
Tate is quick, agile and experienced, having played two seasons at Ohio State before transferring to UC. He has proven he can score and rebound at the Division I level, averaging 14 points and seven boards in his final season with the Buckeyes.
"When Jermaine comes back, everybody understandably is going to look to him because he did it before at Ohio State," Fletcher said. "I'm trying to take advantage of this just to prove myself while I can."
Fletcher, who is 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, demonstrated last season as UC's only interior reserve that the could play physically, but there were plenty of questions he left unanswered.
Can he rebound? He's still never hit double figures despite his big frame.
Can he play responsibly? He had two turnovers in 31 minutes against Iowa State, giving him an average of one every 12 minutes this season. There have been far fewer occasions when he's been singled out for making a defensive error, and his work against Iowa State's Marcus Fizer was about as proficient as can be asked against a future first-round draft choice.
Can he score? Fletcher had 11 points in Friday's win against Iowa State, the second time he reached double-figures. He still made only 4-of-10 from the field, though, leaving his season percentage at .400. That's better than his career mark of .378, but indicative of the progress available to him.
In the first half, he executed a baseline spin move that was the work of a deft ballhandler with quick feet - qualities it's easy to forget Fletcher possesses.
More important, Fletcher has become confident enough in his offensive skills to take - and make - some huge shots in the Iowa State game. He hit from the right baseline to give UC a three-point lead with 16:46 left in the game. He spun and fired a 12-foot jumper from the left side against Fizer that put the Bearcats in front by five with 11:41 left. Fletcher then powered in a shot that gave UC the lead for good with 8:05 remaining.
"I feel like I have the opportunity to make some mistakes without having to worry about coming out immediately," Fletcher said. "It wouldn't be like that if Jermaine were here already."
Fletcher's work at the center of UC's zone defense was a significant reason the Cyclones scored only one field goal in the game's final nine minutes.
Fletcher kept his body on Fizer as often as possible and made it difficult for him to catch the ball in scoring position. Fizer did not have an offensive rebound.
"He played really physical down low," Fizer said. "It wasn't anything special or different, but their whole team is very talented and plays defense very well. I tried going to rebound, but unfortunately a lot of times I couldn't get to it."
Notebook: Ballhandling better
More photos and coverage at the Shootout Web site
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