Thursday, January 21, 1999

UC out to prove who's boss in C-USA


Crucial test at Louisville tonight

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If the Cincinnati Bearcats are to rule the nation, must they first control matters in their own neighborhood?

        This is not a question that will be answered tonight, but whether it is relevant may come to light.

        UC could win its league but fail to make a corresponding impact in the NCAA Tournament, as it has in each of the past two years. UC could finish in the middle of the league and still win a national championship, as Arizona did in 1997.

        If the No.5-ranked Bearcats (16-1, 4-1) are to continue their dominance of Conference USA, however, there can be no debating the importance of claiming a victory in their 9:30 visit to Louisville (10-3, 5-0) at Freedom Hall.

UC at LOUISVILLE
• When: 9:30 p.m., today
• Where: Freedom Hall
• Records: Cincinnati 16-1, 4-1 CUSA; Louisville 10-3, 5-0 CUSA
• TV: ESPN
• Radio: WLW-AM (700)
BY THE NUMBERS
• 9-of-25: Two-game shooting effort by DePaul star Quentin Richardson against defense of Louisville's Nate Johnson.
.500: Louisville's team shooting percentage, best in C-USA.
.389: Louisville's team three-point percentage, best in C-USA.
• 386: UC's team three-point defense, worst in C-USA.
        “It's mainly to keep the tradition going,” said UC center Kenyon Martin. “It belongs here, so let's keep it here.”

        “It” would be the Conference USA regular-season title the Bearcats have won each year since the league was formed in 1995. UC has won 41 of 49 games in that period, two of the losses coming against Louisville.

        Should the Bearcats lose this game, though, they would be two games behind the Cardinals with not even half of the conference schedule completed. That would not be an insurmountable deficit, but, as coach Bob Huggins said, “It'd be uphill ... We've gone uphill before.”

        Louisville not only has an unbeaten C-USA mark, it already has won three times on the road, including at South Florida and DePaul. Its remaining road games, including a Feb. 21 trip to UC, are against Saint Louis, UNC Charlotte, Tulane and Southern Mississippi.

        “We're not thinking about that,” said senior point guard Michael Horton, before admitting they were. “But we're just trying to stay focused, know we have to come out and play hard and physical. We don't want to put ourselves in that deep of a hole.”

        Horton is the cause for Huggins' contemplation regarding whom to start at point guard against the Cardinals. Huggins said he thinks he'll stick with using junior Jermaine Tate to open at power forward, with Ryan Fletcher coming off the bench for the second time.

        Horton would be a logical choice at the point, had he not been injured last Thursday against UNC Charlotte and then missed a treatment session Sunday after Huggins publicly warned him to make it.

        Huggins said he still is considering starting Horton against Louisville, and though it tactically makes sense because Horton is UC's best on-the-ball defender, it's unlikely he'd let a player off so easily for so obvious a transgression.

        Senior Shawn Myrick and freshman Steve Logan are the other possibilities. Myrick started in Saturday's win against Oklahoma but lasted less than two minutes before being removed. Logan has come off the bench in the past two games to average 16 points, but handling the penetration and constant movement presented by point guard Cameron Murray is essential to stopping the Cardinals.

        “I'm pretty sure it won't be me,” Horton said. “But when he calls my number or my name, I'll be ready to play.”

        Murray has been perhaps the most improved player in C-USA, lifting his scoring average from 8.8 points to 13.3 and, more important, controlling nearly everyone he faces.

        As a junior, Murray was out of shape and a player opposing defenses deliberately attacked. Now 20 pounds lighter, he limited North Carolina's Ed Cota to seven points and five turnovers, Kentucky's Wayne Turner to 11 points and six turnovers and DePaul's Kerry Hartfield to 12 points and three turnovers.

        “He's making shots he didn't make last year. He didn't take care of the ball the way he does now,” Huggins said. “He's a huge difference in that team. He's playing with so much more confidence.”

        There is little doubt a Conference USA title would carry more meaning for the Cardinals, at least as their season stands now. They are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament, pending an appeal. If they cannot play in the NCAAs, they will not be permitted in the C-USA tournament in March.

        “I think this will give us a pretty good indication of where we are,” Louisville coach Denny Crum said.

        “We're going to have to play really well to have a chance, but I'm not sure if the winning and losing is as important as if we can just show we can play with those people. Any time you get a chance to play top teams, you get a chance to move up, to have people around the country notice what you're doing.”



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