BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Bob Huggins is about to run his Cincinnati Bearcats through a Monday practice that will be at least as daunting as any professor's exam they will encounter during this week's finals. The voters in the wire-service polls may view UC as the nation's fourth-best college basketball team, but he does not share their enthusiasm. He figures these guys need to work.
"Are we that good? No. Absolutely not," Huggins says. "I haven't seen everybody else, but I have a hard time imagining that we are."
A month ago, when the Associated Press compiled its first poll of writers and broadcasters, the Bearcats were barely on the list. But it's been an eventful month. There are only six teams left in the Top 25 that own unbeaten records. There are only five major-conference teams that are unbeaten but not ranked. The proliferation of exempt tournaments has meant more elite teams facing each other early.
Thus, a team such as UC is going to appear attractive when it stands amidst the chaos with an undefeated mark (5-0) and a victory over previously top-ranked Duke.
"We are going to stay focused no matter what goes on, because we set a goal at the beginning of the year," says
freshman point guard Steve Logan. "And working hard is the only way to accomplish that."
'We're trying to get to the Final Four and win it all."
Just as Huggins is concerned about UC's focus, its offensive execution and its rebounding, Jim Calhoun of top-ranked UConn could complain about his team's interior toughness, Maryland coach Gary Williams could fret about the Terps' halfcourt-offense malaise that nearly cost them a win Sunday against Stanford and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski might be working toward improving the Blue Devils' ball distribution, which helped cost them the UC game.
So it isn't just the Bearcats that have problems to address, but if theirs aren't solved, they might not be keeping company with these other teams through the end of the season.
Rebounding. The Bearcats last season outrebounded opponents by 8.3 per game, which ranked seventh in the NCAA, their fourth consecutive top-10 finish in that category. After five games this year, they are only plus-1.8 and have been outrebounded twice.
Part of that statistic is attributable to Oakland's decision to pack five players in the lane in UC's most recent game and deny the Bearcats any chance for offensive rebounds. But only a small part. The bigger problem is a lack of production from center Kenyon Martin and power forward Ryan Fletcher, who are averaging a combined 13 per game.
"We have the potential to be a pretty good rebounding team," Huggins says. "But right now, we're terrible, probably toward the bottom of the league."
Defensive pressure. The Bearcats turned around their win against Oakland by creating some turnovers and steals with the press, but this was an opponent that basically functioned without a point guard.
UC opponents have averaged slightly more than 17 turnovers, about the same forced by last year's Bearcats, not a strong pressure team.
Offensive execution. UC has taken excellent care of the basketball, averaging only 10 turnovers, but too much of the offense has been the result of individual effort -- either by small forward Pete Mickeal in the Rhode Island win, or shooting guard Melvin Levett against Duke.
UC averages about one assist for every two field goals, which was its figure last season when far more points were coming from offensive rebounds.
Continuity. UC hasn't yet played a game with the lineup it plans to have through January, February and March.
Veteran point guard Michael Horton missed the Alaska trip with a foot injury. Guard Alvin Mitchell missed most of the Oakland game with an ankle sprain. Power forward Jermaine Tate becomes eligible for next Monday's game against Nicholls State.
"One more game, we'll get Jermaine," Huggins says. "Then we'll have everybody."