Saturday, February 20, 1999

UC-Louisville goes from humdrum to humdinger




BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This basketball game once figured to have all the passion of a Grapefruit League exhibition: one more game on the road to nowhere for Louisville, one more game the Cincinnati Bearcats had little doubt they'd win.

        ABC has quite a show for its regional audience now. Sunday afternoon at the Shoemaker Center, UC and Louisville will decide which team will be in control of the Conference USA race, which will be most likely to gain the top seed for the league tournament and how each will be viewed by the NCAA selection committee.

        On the way to what looked like a fairly routine game, Louisville was cleared by the NCAA's appeals committee to participate in the NCAA Tournament because of a procedural error in its infractions case.

        As Louisville (16-7, 10-3) was rallying in the wake of that news, No. 9 UC (22-4, 9-4) was slumping to three consecutive road defeats, struggling with its team chemistry and its ability to score points, losing the firm grip it held on the C-USA race.

        What the Cardinals face, though, is an opponent that has dominated them through the past two seasons. Louisville has dropped four consecutive games in the series by an average of 15 points, including an 81-55 victory for the Bearcats last month in Freedom Hall.

        “They've been physically better than we have — bigger, stronger, deeper up front,” Cards coach Denny Crum said. “We were just in a period of time there where we weren't playing well at all.'

        That win was a sort of high point for UC. Since leaving Louisville, the Bearcats are only 5-3. Their practice Friday afternoon was lethargic enough that Huggins called it off and ordered to players to return for an 8 p.m. workout. UC has been held to 60 or fewer points four times since ripping apart the Cardinals' defenses.

        Whether that would become an issue against Louisville is debatable, as the Cardinals have not employed slowdown-style tactics this season and used pressure defense through most of the earlier loss to their apparent detriment.

        “You've got to do what you do best,” Crum said, “and that's what we do best. It's interesting the way certain kids play against certain styles better than others. That's the way it's been, but that doesn't mean it'll be that way the next time.”

        UC will have to prove itself as a defensive team once again, though. The Cardinals shot 58 percent against UNC Charlotte in an important win 10 days ago, and 49ers coach Bobby Lutz said there was nothing his team could do to defend the Cardinals.

        “We've been playing better, but we didn't play as well against Tulane,” Crum said of Thursday's five-point victory. “I think we kind of ran out of gas a little bit, with four games in eight days. Our kids understand the value of every little win at this point. They played hard. They just got tired.”

        Crum has always defined his team more by what it accomplishes nationally, particularly in the NCAA Tournament, than by what the Cardinals win in their conference.

        They made the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in the first two seasons of Conference USA without getting past the league tournament semifinals.

        They have not won a league championship of any sort since capturing three consecutive Metro Conference tournaments — after UC and Memphis left the league to join the Great Midwest — from 1993-95.

        Though it would seem a reg ular-season title in C-USA would carry extra meaning given what Louisville went through with its on-again/off-again NCAA ban, Crum said it is not what he looks at when considering the ramifications of the UC matchup.

        He is looking toward the Conference USA tournament March 3-6 in Birmingham, even though it seems the Cardinals are in excellent shape to win an at-large NCAA berth.

        “The most important thing is you get the No. 1 seed,” Crum said. “Everybody wants to win, but I think the real value of winning is to get a bye in the first round, only having to win three in a row to win the tournament. Winning four games in four days the way we play would be really difficult.

        “The kinds of things we do to force tempo would be hard to do four days in a row.”

       



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