Saturday, January 09, 1999

'Fletch' lives in post


Beefy Bearcat a bruiser inside

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

fletcher
Ryan Fletcher bangs with Duke's Elton Brand.
(AP photo)

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        HATTIESBURG, Miss. — He is not quite the man he used to be. Ryan Fletcher weighed 262 pounds when the basketball season began for the Cincinnati Bearcats, but since has dropped 12 or 13 pounds he'd prefer to still carry.

        As the weight melted, though, it appeared to leave its mark on some of the more imposing big men UC has faced: Duke's Elton Brand, DePaul's Lance Williams, Minnesota's Joel Przybilla.

        Entering today's 6 p.m. visit to Conference USA contender Southern Mississippi (10-5, 2-1) at Reed Green Coliseum, the No.3 Bearcats (14-0, 3-0) have played nine games against teams from major conferences. Their primary post players shot a collective 28-of-66 from the floor, a dismal .426 percentage that includes a 4-of-7 effort by the All-American Brand and 4-of-13 by Williams, one of the country's top freshmen.

        A lot of credit for the central inefficiency of UC's opponents has deservedly gone to career shot-block leader Kenyon Martin, but one secret of the Bearcats' defense is that Martin has not been the man assigned to guard most of the bigger players.

[fletcher]
Fletcher bangs with Rhode Island's David Arigbabu.
(AP photo)

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        That would be Fletcher, a 6-10 junior from Franklin, who will challenge 6-9, 230-pound Vandarel Jones today. “Maybe some people notice, the ones that aren't ignorant to really good basketball,” Fletcher said. “Some people look at points and rebounds and maybe aren't able to grasp the other parts of the game. As long as the coaches and players know ... ”

        Fletcher is a favorite target of those talk-show callers or internet critics who perceive his 4.9-point, 5.2-rebound averages and, most prominently, his .359 field-goal shooting as liabilities for a team that otherwise appears to have few flaws.

        Because he has only blocked four shots and picked up eight steals, his defensive contribution is more difficult to recognize.

        “The game before us, against Fresno State, Brand bulled his way to 21 points and 21 rebounds, and I watched him do it,” Fletcher said. “The fact they played Fresno before us showed that athletic ability doesn't always get the job done.

[fletcher]
Ryan Fletcher
        “I was a football player, so growing up, I always liked contact. I think it's all about toughness. I enjoy the contact. Some people shy away from it, and other people enjoy it.”

        Fletcher recognizes the areas in which he can improve. How could he not, given all the layups and put-backs he rolls off the rim? He believes it comes from being new to playing in the lane, concentrating too much on creating room to shoot and not enough on keeping his eye on the target. He has been more accurate with his occasional 14-foot jumpers than from directly beneath the goal.

        The ability to consume and control space is something NBA teams greatly value, though, which is why their centers generally must weigh in excess of 250 pounds to survive. The difference between a player willing to sacrifice his body in that pursuit and one who would rather not is clear from the disparate results achieved by UC and No. 5 Maryland against second-ranked Duke.

        The Terps sent 260-pound senior Obinna Ekezie to challenge Brand, but Ekezie rarely was seen in the same vicinity as Brand and the Blue Devils left Maryland's Cole Field House with an 18-point win.

        A week after colliding (often) with Fletcher in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout, in which UC built a 19-point lead and left with a buzzer-beating victory, Brand still was talking about Fletcher's influence on the game.

        The Fletcher-Martin tandem is difficult for most centers to solve. Because Fletcher is so hard to move, centers often wind up establishing position a few feet from their comfort zone. If they shoot over Fletcher or make a move to get past, Martin's extraordinary quickness and leaping ability often affords him shot-blocking opportunities.

        UC coach Bob Huggins said this approach to defense is nothing new, that Bobby Brannen often guarded the opponents' strongest post man as the Bearcats won the 1998 Conference USA title. But when that player was too tall for Brannen, such as West Virginia's 6-11 Brian Lewin, Martin had no choice but to handle the matchup. UC did not face as many gifted centers during that season, either.

        Fletcher finished last season weighing 216 pounds, then spent the offseason consumed with adding strength and bulk, working with new conditioning coach Tim Swanger. Huggins said Fletcher's workouts the previous summer were the worst of his career.

        “I think he knew,” Huggins said. “He saw what happened to Bob between his junior and senior year.

        “He's been very good defensively. It's hard to dip your shoulder and knock him back. They can't knock him off the ball.”

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