Tuesday, February 16, 1999

Point the way to fixing UC's problem

Fall coincides with Mitchell getting less time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Coach Bob Huggins wants his audience to believe his team is not all that great, is not a certain Final Four entrant, is not the best group of Cincinnati Bearcats he has coached.

        “I have tried and tried to explain to you guys,” Huggins said, “we are not that good.”

        He is correct, apparently. Three consecutive losses make a pretty good case. Three losses to teams that owned a composite .529 winning percentage when they lined up against UC is pretty convincing.

        OK, so the Bearcats aren't a great team. But weren't they once?

        Huggins insists this team is not as good as the one that carried him to the 1992 Final Four, but neither does the competition consist of Michigan's Fab Five and Duke's Grant Hill/Bobby Hurley/Christian Laettner team.

        It was not long ago these Bearcats were 15-0, ranked as high as No.3, still able to boast of what no one else in the college game has done, which is defeat top-ranked Duke. They were averaging 12.1 turnovers, making nearly seven three-point shots a game (making 36.7 percent) and intimidating opponents with a defense that forced 18 turnovers and blocked five shots each time out.

        In their past 10 games, they are 6-4, falling to No.9 in the Associated Press poll, unable to defeat sub-.500 Marquette. They average 15.5 turnovers, make under four three-pointers and shoot 29.2 percent from long range, force 17 turnovers and block 4.8 shots.

        UC now is playing to avoid its first four-game losing streak under Huggins, its first since the 1987-88 season, and to avoid being swept by an opponent for the first time in four seasons of Conference USA play. The Bearcats (21-4, 8-4) could even lose their grip on a first-round bye in the C-USA tournament if they fall to UNC Charlotte (15-9, 7-5) on Wednesday night at the Shoemaker Center.

        “I could tell they're probably doubting themselves,” said Saint Louis senior forward Ryan Luechtefeld after claiming his first victory against the Bearcats in 10 attempts. “They're just like any other team.”

        There are many differences between UC then and now, but none is more obvious and addressable than this:

        More Michael Horton.

        Less Alvin Mitchell.

        When UC returned from a December road trip with consecutive wins over Minnesota and UNLV, Horton entered the starting lineup at point guard and the Bearcats began their decline.

        In his second game, the Bearcats scored 53 points against Dayton and nearly lost. In his sixth game, they scored 54 at Southern Mississippi and, again, barely escaped.

        When Horton is turning over the ball, no matter how many minutes he plays, it is a disease that spreads through the Bearcats. In games where he commits three or more — there have been seven of those, including four in the past six games — UC averages 17.8 turnovers.

        Struggling under difficult circumstances is nothing new for Horton, as anyone who saw him commit eight turnovers in UC's NCAA Tournament defeat against West Virginia last March can attest.

        In his past 15 games away from the Shoemaker Center, Horton committed three or more turnovers seven times, remarkable in that he played fewer than 20 minutes five times in that stretch.

        “We lost in the tournament last year because we turned it over,” Huggins said. “Our older guys really beat it in the younger guys' heads that we're not going to lose the same way we lost last year, and we did a good job with that. As we won more games, we got more careless with the basketball.”

        Freshman Steve Logan owns a 10-0 record as UC's starting point guard and has scored in double figures four times in the past 10 games, but Huggins has been more forgiving of Horton's turnovers than Logan's struggle to manage the responsibilities of playing the position at the Division I level.

        More puzzling than Huggins' patience with Horton, though, is his insistence he cannot use Mitchell at the point.

        A junior transfer who played the position for last year's junior college champions, he also handled it against Duke's William Avery for 24 minutes that led to 14 points and UC's biggest win. He scored 12 points in overtime against Minnesota. He played 30 minutes at Southern Mississippi and scored 10 points, grabbed three steals and ran the last consistent fast break the Bearcats enjoyed.

        Mitchell has gotten fewer than 10 minutes five times since the losing began — including all four of the defeats.

        “I don't really want to get into that,” Huggins said, asked to explain what Mitchell does not do as a point guard. “We've got enough problems without putting scouting reports in the paper. We try to use him in practice, and there's a variety of things that don't happen.”

        After UC's loss Sunday to Saint Louis, Huggins explained UC's early season success thusly: “We had some guys make shots. We have not made a shot in a month.”

        If Huggins gives some thought to that statement, he'll recognize it was precisely one month to the day that UC went to UNC Charlotte and lost for the first time. Mitchell played three minutes that night.


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