Friday, February 12, 1999

UC flunking chemistry

Leadership void illuminated in 2 straight losses

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        No one really talks much about leadership or chemistry when a basketball team is winning games. Those elements are a given, unless there's no other apparent explanation for positive results.

        With the Cincinnati Bearcats, there were Melvin Levett's three-pointers, Kenyon Martin's blocks, Pete Mickeal's drives. Those weapons and the defense designed by coach Bob Huggins made it possible to ignore the questions about whether UC had genuine leadership or a reliable point guard and whether those matters would ultimately undermine the team's obvious strengths.

        Now, leadership is an issue. Chemistry is an issue. No. 4 UC is 21-3, no longer alone in first place in Conference USA and rests in its first two-game losing streak since the 1994-95 season.

        “I don't think it has anything to do with basketball right now,” said former UC guard Anthony Buford, an analyst for the team's telecasts on Channel 19. “It's three hours out of 24, and you work your butt off. If you can't do that, give it up. It's really simple.”

        Buford had a long talk about leadership with Levett, UC's senior shooting guard, in the Milwaukee airport as the Bearcats prepared Thursday morning to depart the scene of their latest defeat, a 62-58 loss to Marquette.

        “We need somebody out there who can keep the fire lit,” Levett said. “I can't really say who right now. Next time you ask me that question, you'll know.”

        Levett always has played with emotion, but has not been the consistently textbook player whose example as well as his words can provide leadership. Mickeal and Martin are more of that mold, but it is difficult for a junior to provide leadership when seniors play a great deal.

        It's more problematic when one of those seniors is a point guard, and that point guard — Michael Horton — is the most unpredictable player on the roster. “They don't see collectively what needs to be done,” Buford said. “Individually, they might know, but they don't know how to get the best out of the group.”

        The chemistry of a successful team can be delicate. Huggins' decision to change his lineup after one defeat might have affected that balance.

        The results are reminiscent of Wake Forest in 1996-97, when the Demon Deacons rode All-American Tim Duncan to a top-five ranking and what appeared to be a certain No. 1 seed. The Deacons won their first 13 with a nondescript senior named Sean Allen starting at power forward and 7-foot-1 freshman Loren Woods coming off the bench.

        Allen was strictly a role player, generating little in the way of points or rebounds. When Allen was part of the mix, Wake Forest won. With Woods' tremendous talent ready to be unleashed, however, Coach Dave Odom felt compelled to make a lineup switch and removed Allen after the Deacons suffered their first loss in mid-January. They were 13-1. From that point on, they went 11-6. Woods wasn't prepared to handle the pressure of starting and Allen became a non-factor because there was no reason to put him in the game if he couldn't produce.

        Odom still admits it was a mistake and even tried to put Allen in the lineup near the end of the year. Too late. The Deacons were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament second round.

        This was the chance Huggins took when he moved Jermaine Tate into Ryan Fletcher's position at power forward against Oklahoma Jan. 16. UC was 15-1 with Fletcher as a starter. With Tate, UC is 6-2.

        With Tate and Horton in the starting lineup, the Bearcats are just 3-2. They allow opponents to concern themselves with defending their three most lethal offensive weapons: Levett, Mickeal and Martin.

        In particular, Martin's production has suffered. He has averaged seven shots and 8.1 points per game since Tate entered the lineup. UC opponents use their biggest, best defender on Martin without fear Tate will hurt them. He has averaged 3.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and .250 shooting as a starter.

        Fletcher has become an explosive scorer off the bench, which gives this change the illusion of success, but he has become less concerned with defense and is a principal offender with UC's sudden addiction to the quick shot.

        The Bearcats did this often in the closing minutes of the DePaul game and throughout the Marquette loss: shooting after one pass, perhaps two. In UC's offense, this is only slightly less painful than throwing the ball directly to the opponent.

        If a UC player launches a perimeter shot after one pass, it's likely none of his teammates will be prepared to “get opposite” — Huggins' rebounding theory is that most errant shots go long — and be in position to collect a miss. The Bearcats are not proficient enough as a jumpshooting or low-post team to survive without a lot of stick-back baskets. Against Marquette, they did not score once by tipping in a missed shot.

        Huggins has been here before. In the past five seasons, UC's record in the first 15 days of February was 14-8. Its record between Feb. 16 and NCAA Tournament elimination was 36-9.

        “We will get it fixed,” Huggins said.


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