Sunday, January 03, 1999


League young, eager

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As if the Cincinnati Bearcats did not have enough to concern them trying to protect an unbeaten record and No.3 national ranking, now they'll have to face the collective might of the 11 other teams in Conference USA.

        OK, so maybe that isn't terribly frightening.

        Saint Louis has lost to Southern Illinois. Alabama-Birmingham and UNC Charlotte both fell to Princeton. Southern Mississippi was felled by Virginia Commonwealth and Memphis by Gonzaga.

        Saint Louis also has beaten Kansas, though, and UNC Charlotte defeated Miami (Fla.), and DePaul took care of California and UAB clobbered Tulsa.

        As the heart of the C-USA season opens this weekend, every team in the league save for Houston has a .500 or better record and the league is ranked sixth in the RPI standings. The membership in general has been just poor enough to be beaten by mid-major opponents and just powerful enough to be a danger to most teams they play.

        Which means that just about everyone enters league play with one goal in mind, and one thought about how to get there: They want to reach the NCAA Tournament, and there may be no better means of getting there than claiming the Bearcats (12-0, 1-0) as a victim.

        UNCC (8-5, 0-1), South Florida (8-1, 1-0), UAB (10-4, 1-0) and Southern Mississippi (9-4, 1-0) and DePaul (6-5, 0-1) are all in the picture, but all need substantial league success and could use a marquee win.

        “They're a very good team, make no mistake about it,” said Houston coach Clyde Drexler, whose team already has an 0-1 league mark courtesy of the Bearcats. “They've got so much depth. Those guys play so hard. I've got nothing but respect for them.”

        Cincinnati won the first three championships in Conference USA and was expected to be battling Memphis for its fourth title, but the Tigers have struggled with chemistry and point guard problems and have dropped three in a row to stand at 6-5 overall, 0-1 in the league.

        If there is to be a true challenger for UC, it might come from South Florida or Louisville (6-3, 1-0), both of which have played consistently well.

        Louisville is handicapped by the NCAA sanctions it is facing, which prohibits the Cardinals from competing in the NCAA Tournament this March unless their appeal to have that restriction removed is upheld. They won't know the answer until February.

        Coach Seth Greenberg's Bulls are one of the most physical teams in the nation, let alone the league, and have their first dangerous scoring threat since guard Chucky Atkins completed his career three seasons ago in 6-foot-7 freshman forward B.B. Waldon, who is averaging 17.9 points.

        Of USF's top eight scorers, all but two are freshmen and sophomores. The Bulls have had to operate without 6-10 center Scott Johnson, who injured his knee in the season's second game.

        “I think there's a better understanding how hard you need to play to be successful,” Greenberg said.

        South Florida is typical of Conference USA's members in employing so many young players, which is a major reason for the teams' inconsistency. Of the top 15 scorers, 11 are in their first or second season of Division I basketball.

        Poor recruiting that led to almost no talent entering the league between 1994 and 1996 has been corrected, leading to such freshman successes as Waldon and Altron Jackson at USF, Eugene Land and Steve Logan at Cincinnati and Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams at DePaul.

        The Blue Demons have dropped three in a row as the reality of the challenge presented by college basketball have struck the three rookies, but they remain one of the league's most dangerous teams.

        “Kids know it's one of the major leagues,” said Marquette coach Mike Deane, “but we have to have someone other than Cincinnati emerge. Conference USA doesn't have that power yet.”


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