Wednesday, February 10, 1999

UC flaws not fatal, but need attention

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MILWAUKEE — They have played 23 games and lost twice. The losses were by a combined three points. Neither ended without officiating blunders aiding the opponent's cause. The second defeat forced the Cincinnati Bearcats to drop one spot in the Associated Press poll, to No.4. Go ahead. Panic.

When: 8 p.m. today
• Where: Bradley Center, Milwaukee
Records: UC 21-2, 8-2 C-USA; Marquette 11-12, 3-8
TV: Channel 19
Radio: WLW-AM (700)
• 36: Players who came before Melvin Levett as 1,000-point scorers at UC. He needs three points to join them
• 6: Freshmen who started against UC in the past two games
• 6: Consecutive foes who have shot below .400 against UC
        “I don't think anyone's perfect,” said UC center Kenyon Martin. “I think we realize we haven't been playing as well. We got together, and we know what we need to work on. I think it'll pick back up.”

        UC and its fans have not become accustomed to defeat this season, which may be why there was such a dramatic reaction to Saturday's 61-60 overtime loss at DePaul.

        As the Bearcats (21-2, 8-2) continue pursuit of a fourth consecutive Conference USA title tonight at 8 p.m. against last-place Marquette (11-12, 3-8) at the Bradley Center, they have no cause for alarm. They do have some areas of concern, though, which may affect whether they can grab the No.1 NCAA Tournament seed that is their greater goal:

        1. Intensity. The Bearcats do not have the individual offensive talent to excel without creating some points from their defense, and that does not happen when they play passively. They cannot be expected to play with peak emotion throughout a 30-game season, but there are few enough games left to expect more than has been evident in the past three games.

        “It's a matter of preparing ourselves, getting ready and just going hard,” said senior guard Melvin Levett. “This is the time of year we peak, not the time we go in the tank.”

        Without intensity, fullcourt pressure and halfcourt traps have no sting. Without squeezing the ball loose near the midcourt line, the Bearcats generate few fast breaks.

        When the Bearcats force fewer than 15 turnovers, they average 66.7 points and shoot .425 from the floor. Otherwise, it's 79.9 points and .489 shooting.

        “Our lack of consistency from the perimeter — that could be said of anybody,”

        Huggins said. “That's why you have to do a better job rebounding and a better job of defending.”

        2. Execution. When the Bearcats become less aggressive on defense, they also lose concentration on offense. And when the offense loses direction, they are vulnerable.

        Although UC has many players who can score, there are three who should: Martin, Levett and forward Pete Mickeal.

        In both defeats, the Bearcats were led by someone other than those three. Four of the six games in which one of them did not lead the Bearcats in scoring were decided by two or fewer points, as opposed to two of the 17 games in which they did.

        “We're forcing things, making bad decisions, not hitting guys that are open,” Huggins said. “We can't be a one-on-one team.”

        3. Does Martin need a body guard? Moving 6-foot-10, 260-pound Ryan Fletcher to the bench has made Fletcher a better player. Hehas averaged 12 points and 6.5 rebounds since being replaced by junior Jermaine Tate in the starting lineup. But has it made UC a better team?

        Since Fletcher took a seat, Martin has scored single digits four times in seven games after hitting double figures seven times in nine games with Fletcher as a starter.

        Fletcher's ability to control space and keep physical players (such as Duke's Elton Brand and Rhode Island's Luther Clay) off Martin was valuable when he started.

        “Fletch is too productive coming off the bench,” Huggins insists. He believes defenses have packed around Martin on the inside, and he must be more aggressive in getting open and making plays when he catches the ball.

        4. UC's senior point guard is like the stock of one of those fledgling internet companies. Way up. Way down. Never stable, never reliable.

        “It's sad to say, senior year, him having the capability of doing things but not always doing them,” Levett said.

        Huggins sticks with Horton because Horton can be an exceptional defender, as he was against Xavier's Lenny Brown in the final minutes of the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout. Huggins also maintains“He's still the best guy we've got at getting the ball where it's supposed to go.”

        Huggins' belief in Horton may be a crutch. Of UC's five wins over teams in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index, Horton missed two (Duke and Oklahoma) and got 20 minutes and multiple assists just once in the others (Minnesota, UAB and Louisville). Junior Alvin Mitchell averaged 17 minutes, 7.6 points and shot 8-of-19 from three-point range in the five wins.

        5. Forces beyond their control. Those comparing the Bearcats to No.1 Duke should know what DePaul coach Pat Kennedy knows: The ACC isn't a very tricky league.

        “If you played against five percent zone during the course of a year, that was a lot,” said Kennedy, who previously coached at Florida State. “This league is a little bit craftier in that respect.”

        It's easier to look good when you're facing man-to-man every night. UC has seen a variety of different tactics, including the extended 1-3-1 zone Kennedy threw at the Bearcats and the matchup defense they will face tonight against Marquette.

        It's doubtful, as well, the Blue Devils are called “criminals” in arenas they visit. That's a typical night for UC on the C-USA road.

        “We have four more on the road, and there's nothing like playing on the road and being Cincinnati,” Levett said. “It's going to be rough for us. But we haven't let anybody beat us. We basically gave it away.”

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