Wednesday, February 03, 1999

Bearcats set sights on No. 1 seed

No heavyweights left on schedule

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While the nation watches Maryland play Duke this evening, the Cincinnati Bearcats and their fans will try to motivate themselves for Tulane.

        While the nation watches Connecticut try to recover from its first defeat by subjecting itself to a visit to Stanford Saturday afternoon, UC will play struggling DePaul in dank Rosemont Horizon.

• When: 8 p.m. today
• Where: Shoemaker Center
• Records: UC 20-1, 7-1 C-USA; Tulane 9-9, 3-6 C-USA
• TV: Channel 19
• Radio: WLW-AM (700)
• 29: UC's winning streak at the Shoe, now the fifth-longest in Division I.
• 29-1: UC's record against Conference USA opponents at the Shoe.
• 145: Levett's career three-pointers. Two more will push him past Nick van Exel into third place on UC's career list.
• 8.0: Horton's assist average since returning to starting lineup two games ago.
        Most of the big regular season games are in the past for the No.3 Bearcats (20-1, 7-1). But the direct impact of No.1 Connecticut's loss Monday night to Syracuse is to make UC's remaining games dramatically more important, including tonight's 8 p.m. Conference USA game against Tulane (9-9, 3-6) at the Shoemaker Center.

        UC coach Bob Huggins believes one thing will keep the Bearcats moving forward. “Hopefully, the will to win.”

        Just in case, there is a second factor. “We'll just stay on their behinds every day.”

        And then there's the one that will matter most, which Huggins has not unleashed as yet but that the Bearcats already are talking about: the pursuit of a No.1 NCAA Tournament seed.

        “I've been saving it,” said Huggins, who never is shy about bringing up tournament seeding in motivating his teams through February. “We'll use that here pretty soon.”

        UConn's first defeat opened the race for the four No.1 seeds even wider. No.2 Duke (21-1) all but has one in its pocket because of its record against high-caliber competition, but the Huskies (19-1) no longer appear to be a lock to grab one because of the injury to starting center Jake Voskuhl.

        He may have a stress fracture in his foot that could keep him out a month. His team definitely has several remaining games — including rematches with Syracuse and Miami, which took the Huskies to overtime — that will test how it can hold up in difficult circumstances.

        “We would have looked forward to it if we could give them their 18th loss, if that was the case,” said Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, whose team plays UConn at 3

        p.m. Saturday.

        There will be several heavyweight matchups during the next month that will determine the No. 1 seeds. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your perspective — none will involve UC.

        Duke faces No.7 Maryland (19-3) tonight at 9 p.m. Duke also has a game at No.12 North Carolina (Feb. 27), whereas Maryland gets the Tar Heels at home (Feb. 13). Stanford still must play No.13 UCLA (Feb. 11) and No.10 Arizona (Feb. 27), both at home.

        The Bearcats are all but guaranteed not to face a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 as they conclude the Conference USA regular season and the C-USA Tournament in Birmingham March 3-6.

        UC has a three-game road trip starting Saturday at DePaul, but the national view would be that the greatest challenge would come when UNC Charlotte, No.29 in the Ratings Percentage Index, visits the Shoemaker Center Feb. 17.

        This is both to the Bearcats' advantage and disadvantage. They most likely cannot afford to lose more than one additional game if they are to gain a No.1 seed, because they will not be able to offset too much damage with big victories.

        Neither will they get the same sort of reward from victories that Duke did by winning at St. John's and North Carolina last week.

        “I think we learned a lot about our team and were put in a bunch of game situations that will help us down the road,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We seem to be in good shape right now.”

        UConn cannot say the same. Voskuhl was not the only starter missing in UConn's 59-42 home loss to Syracuse. Richard Hamilton, an All-American shooting guard, has a thigh bruise and is expected to return soon. Voskuhl had his foot reevaluated Tuesday.

        Voskuhl had been playing extremely well after a sluggish first month. He does not play physically, but handles the ball and runs extremely well for a big man and allows Connecticut to keep its offense moving at a rapid pace.

        With Voskuhl and Hamilton joining guards Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore and forward Kevin Freeman in Calhoun's starting lineup over the past two years, UConn was 34-2. Without them, it is 0-1.

        Playing without Voskuhl means turning to 6-foot-11 Souleymane Wane, who is not polished enough to keep the offense in high gear, or 6-8 Edmund Saunders, who is not big enough to consistently threaten opponents inside. Stanford has 7-1 Tim Young and 6-8 Mark Madsen to muscle the Huskies inside, and UConn has to go cross-country to play the game.

        “I think these games sound a whole lot better when they're scheduled than they probably do when you're having to play,” Montgomery said. “When you're playing in a conference where every game is like pulling teeth to win, and then jumping on a plane and flying to go play a game — it's just hard mentally to get maybe as excited as everyone else does.”

        Whereas Huggins cops to using the seeding to push his players to achieve, Krzyzewski claims not even to know where this year's first-round games will be played.

        If UConn can keep itself together and keep its grip on a top seed, there will be some consideration, maybe some controversy, about whether the Huskies should be placed atop the East Region and open in Boston, with Duke placed in the South, or whether Duke should get the opportunity to play its first-round games in Charlotte as the East's No.1.

        “If someone said, "I'll give you 100 bucks if you tell me where the first round games are' ... I don't know where any of them are,” Krzyzewski said. “We don't talk about it or think about it.”

        And yet he did admit to knowing this:

        “The ACC is historically part of the East Region,” Krzyzewski said. “If you end up being the top team in the East, then you stay in the East.”

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