Monday, January 11, 1999

UC struggling with close calls




BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Bearcats are making a habit of explaining away sub-standard performances, which beats explaining away defeats but not all the available alternatives.

        For the fourth time in 15 games, this time at Southern Mississippi Saturday, No. 3-ranked UC had to go all the way to the final possession to decide a basketball game. The Bearcats won all four, obvi ously, which is why they remain one of three unbeaten teams in Division I and have advanced to their best start since going 19-0 to open the 1962-63 season.

        Of the teams in the Associated Press top 10, only UCLA has been involved in as many one-possession games. The Bruins dropped one of their four, to Oregon State last Thursday.

        That leaves UC as the unquestioned champion of the close call, a dubious distinction. It demonstrates the Bearcats have the fortitude to survive under peril, but also that they do not play consis tently enough to avoid such situations.

        Their problems in this regard are almost entirely related to offense. The three most recent escapes all came in low-scoring games, with UC getting 62 points against Minnesota, 53 against Dayton and 54 against Southern Miss.

        The problems with their offense stem largely from a lack of aggression. It is not so simple as to say their shots did not drop. It is more a matter of not doing the necessary work to create shots that would.

        With the exception of the final 9:17 of the first half against USM, when UC outscored the Golden Eagles 22-5, there was no hint of a transition offense. Reserve guard Alvin Mitchell pushed the ball into several fastbreaks in that stretch, but for the rest of the game the Bearcats slowed to a crawl.

        For the second consecutive game, point guard Michael Horton struggled at both ends, al lowing penetration early in the game and later forcing his own shots at the expense of finding open teammates.

        “We just got really tentative offensively, didn't get anything in transition,” Coach Bob Huggins said.

        When the Bearcats are unable to create turnovers with their press, which has been a problem the past three games, they are not insistent enough about moving on the fastbreak. With UC's wondrous collection of athletes, scoring in this manner should be routine.

        As scoring proved to be increasingly difficult, we saw something we had not seen before from the Bearcats. It has not been uncommon for the Bearcats to lack motivation in the occasional game and to struggle as a result, but this time they expended the energy to build a 15-point first-half lead against one of Conference USA's most challenging defenses.

        It was no surprise to see Southern Miss make a quick run toward the front, given the Golden Eagles were playing at home before their biggest crowd of the season.

        When the margin was cut to seven, they did not reassert control.

        Guard Melvin Levett was guilty for giving up on a defensive set and allowing USM star Neil Reed to hit an open three-pointer to make it a four-point game with four minutes left.

        Mitchell was guilty for stranding forward Pete Mickeal in the backcourt, forcing him to advance the ball toward midcourt on his own. That led to a steal and a layup that cut the margin to two.

        Center Kenyon Martin was guilty for declining to assert himself on offense. He has had four games this season in which he attempted two or fewer shots. His unselfishness is admirable when the Bearcats are scoring points with ease from other directions. Against Southern Miss, in the second half, they scored just 21.

        “It's something that if we don't come ready to play all the time, bad things can happen,” Levett said. “I can't tell you why. I know when we let our guards down, that gives teams a lot of confidence.”

        It has not given any of them a victory as yet, but it may soon if the Bearcats do not resume their attack.

       



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