Planning makes perfect
How preparation paid off in the opener

Monday, November 23, 1998

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[mcghee]
Aaron McGhee and the Bearcats successully neutralized Rhode Island's Lamar Odom.
(AP photo)

| ZOOM |
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - His departure with just more than three minutes to play was abject surrender. Lamar Odom played 30 minutes of basketball against the Cincinnati Bearcats and produced eight points, two assists and four turnovers in a 70-53 UC victory.

Odom, Rhode Island's versatile 6-foot-10 wonder, has done exactly as the Bearcats hoped, exactly as they planned.

The Bearcats' preparation for Odom and Rhode Island was typical of how they get ready for a game, with one major difference: the luxury of time. UC prepared for nine days to face Odom from URI's opening win Nov. 9 to the UC-URI game last Thursday night.

With that time, coach Bob Huggins took as active a game-preparation role as he will during the regular season. Players watched game tape and highlights, read scouting reports and practiced against their own teammates pretending to be Rams. Sophomore forward Aaron McGhee played Odom, although it is nearly impossible to simulate what he can do on the court.

"We've been able to prepare for this almost two weeks," Huggins said. "If we don't know it by now, we never will."

A look at how it worked:

The Plan

The tapes arrive by Federal Express. The Bearcats have thousands of dollars worth of video equipment to aid in the scouting of opponents, but that does not help when the games UC wants to see are broadcast only in Rhode Island. It is necessary to call a friend there, have him tape the Rhode Island-TCU and Rhode Island-Vanderbilt games and overnight them to Cincinnati.

Assistant coaches Rod Baker and Mick Cronin split scouting assignments equally. This time, it's Cronin's turn, largely because he did the report for last year's URI game at UC.

Cronin watches those two tapes three times each in the five days after their arrival. He and administrative assistant Geoff Schimberg watch the URI-Providence game live in the basketball office because it is broadcast on DirecTV.

UC coaches read the Internet edition of the opponent's local paper each day, in this case, the Web site for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. They also speak to friends on the coaching staffs of teams Rhode Island has already played.

Huggins wants the players' minds immediately on the opener at the end of the final preseason game, so Cronin must deliver a synopsis of Rhode Island's strategy and personnel in the locker room afterward.

"When you have the same staff, a guy doesn't usually change his offense from year to year," Cronin says. "I probably know their offense better than some of their players do."

If the system is the same, the crux of preparing a scouting report is how the personnel function in that system. New players change the way an offense or defense works, and returning players usually improve or regress.

In the case of Rhode Island, it is impossible not to become fixated on Odom. A player his size who can create for his teammates only comes along once or twice a decade. UC happened to play the last such player who appeared in college: Penny Hardaway of Memphis. They beat him six of seven times between 1991 and 1993.

"We'd like to force him to bring the ball up, instead of letting him go down and rest," Cronin says. "With Providence, they were pressuring Lamar, making him earn everything, wearning him down, not trapping because he's so good he'll make the right pass."

The Practice

"If you don't get back better than that, Pete Mickeal, Lamar Odom's going to get 40."

It is three days before the final exhibition, but Rhode Island is on Huggins' mind.

By his recollection, this may be the first time Huggins has yelled at Mickeal since practice started. UC coaches love Mickeal's textbook-style game and intensity, but even he needs an occasional reminder.

Mickeal understands the challenge. The Bearcats have seen a compilation of Odom highlights stitched together with the program's computer video editing system. All Rhode Island players get the same treatment, and on another day there are clips of the Rams' offensive and defensive sets. The quick takes make it less likely the UC players will be bored by the video presentation.

MTV values have taken hold even in the locker room.

UC plans to use Mickeal as its primary defender against Odom. The Bearcats believe in cutting off access to a team's best player. "What coach Huggins likes to say is, 'Make their non-players make plays,' " Cronin explains.

The typed scouting report handed to each Bearcat four days before the game suggests the first option is to turn URI's players into non-players. Under the heading, "To win," the first item is "Get them tired."

Mickeal has noticed that Odom favors his left hand and wants to force him to his right, but the UC coaches merely want Mickeal positioned in front. Odom is no quicker than Mickeal, so if Mickeal reacts well he should be able to cut off moves in either direction. The other defenders have a role in stopping Odom. First, Cronin says, "They can't get caught staring at Lamar." They can never lose sight of the ball and their man, or Odom will rack up another assist.

"Odom sees the whole floor," Mickeal says. "When he gets in the paint, you're at this mercy."

The Play

Odom's first basket is a picture. He posts up eight feet in front of the goal, catches an entry pass and elevates for a jump-hook over Mickeal. When the Bearcats try to challenge him and make him work on defense, he impressively blocks a Mickeal layup.

Afterward, though, Odom disappears into Mickeal's grasp and finishes the first half with four points. "From the start of the game," Mickeal says, "I thought I had him."

Odom's second half is worse. With 16:30 left, he spins around Mickeal to the center of the lane. There, he is met by Bearcats shot-blocker Kenyon Martin, who sends Odom's half-hook flying toward the foul line. "I had great help from my teammates," Mickeal says.

In an earlier difficult game against Providence, Odom passed for nine assists. This time, he ends with two assists.

UC's strategy of forcing the offense toward the Rams' lesser players results in a combined 5-of-20 shooting night from reserves Tory Jefferson, David Arigbabu, Ed Brown and Tip Vinson.

"I'm not sure they did anything as much as (Odom) did it to himself, trying to dribble the ball, go one-on-one," says Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick. "He's got to learn he can't do that."

This was, perhaps, the most effective element of UC's preparations for Rhode Island and Lamar Odom. It didn't even look like a plan. It just worked.

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