Monday, February 01, 1999

UC plants seed for No. 1 berth




BY TOM GROESCHEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The NCAA Tournament bid is obviously a lock. What the Cincinnati Bearcats really crave is a No. 1 seed, something they've never had in seven NCAA appearances under Bob Huggins.

        UC guard Melvin Levett believes there is a big difference between being a No. 1 and No. 2 seed. UC has been a No. 2 seed three times under Huggins, most recently last season. But its farthest advance in the “No. 2” years was the Elite Eight (1993, '96). UC was a No. 4 seed when it reached the Final Four in 1992.

UC OUTLOOK
• Record: 20-1
• Ranking: No. 3 (USA Today/ESPN).
• RPI: No. 2.
• League: 7-1.
• The schedule:
Feb. 3 TULANE
Feb. 6 at DePaul
Feb. 10 at Marquette
Feb. 14 at Saint Louis
Feb. 17 UNC CHARLOTTE
Feb. 21 LOUISVILLE
Feb. 25 at South Florida
Feb. 27 at Memphis
Mar. 3-6 C-USA Tournament
• Toughest test: At Saint Louis, Feb. 14. The Billikens are 5-0 in league games at home.
• Best-case scenario: UC goes 8-0 or, at worst, 7-1 down the stretch. That could still be enought to grab a No. 1 NCAA seed.
• Worst-case scenario: UC stumbles during a three-game road stretch (DePaul, Marquette, St. Louis), or possibly finds trouble in the season finale at unpredictable Memphis. At worst, UC should not drop below a No.2 NCAA seed.
• League tournament: March 3-6 at Birmingham. In the last seven years, UC has won its league tournament six times.
        “If you're a No. 1, you just walk to the Sweet 16,” Levett said Saturday. “That's the difference between a 1 and a 2 (seed). You don't see any top teams at the beginning, but you might if you're a No. 2.”

        UC (20-1) is projected as the No.1 seed in the Midwest Regional in the latest Sports Illustrated weekly forecast. The Bearcats stand No. 2 in the RPI rankings and No. 3 in the latest USA Today/ESPN poll out Sunday.

        But No. 3 Stanford's loss to Arizona last Thursday night and No. 4 Maryland's 85-72 loss to Wake Forest on Sunday indicate that the Bearcats are bound to rise in the AP poll, improving their seeding prospects.

        With the season hitting February, UC will be favored in all eight of its remaining games — all in the unimposing Conference USA. Five of the eight games are on the road, but each remaining opponent already has at least six losses.

        “Hopefully we can win out and get a No. 1 seed,” Levett said. “The ultimate goal is a good place in the tournament.”

        UC learned last year that even being a No. 2 seed doesn't always cut it. The Bearcats were upset by No. 10 seed West Virginia in the second round of the NCAAs.

        Huggins said he has not put much thought into NCAA seedings.

        “The older I get, the less I worry about those things,” he said. “I just worry about the next game. If you think too much about it, someone will jump up and get you.”

        Like who? No true upset seems to loom for UC.

        Next is Tulane, at UC on Wednesday. The Green Wave are fighting to stay over .500. Count that as a W.

        Then come trips to DePaul, Marquette, and Saint Louis, all with records around .500. DePaul and Marquette are the bottom two teams in UC's division of C-USA, but Saint Louis could be a bigger problem. The Billikens are 5-0 in league games at home and gave UC fits in a 55-44 loss at Shoemaker on Jan. 24.

        Then come home games with UNC Charlotte — no way UC loses to the 49ers twice in one season — and Louisville, which dragged a three-game losing streak into Saturday night's game with Charlotte.

        The regular season winds down at South Florida (3-6 in C-USA) and disappointing Memphis (3-5 in C-USA).

        See any losses? No, but the odds say UC might slip up and lose one (see Charlotte, its only loss back on Jan. 14.

        “If we just take care of what we can, we'll be fine,” Huggins said.

        UC figures to carry a 28-1 or maybe 27-2 record into the C-USA tourney at Birmingham. And UC nearly always wins the league tournament, having done so six times in the last seven years.

        Hello, No. 1 seed?

        “If we just keep winning,” said Levett, “it'll be pretty hard for them to overlook us.”



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