Saturday, February 27, 1999

C-USA title on line for Bearcats today


Key is staying aggressive

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Cincinnati Bearcats coach Bob Huggins cannot tell you which championships mean more to him: the five regular-season titles his teams spent two months each winning in the Great Midwest and Conference USA or the six league tournament titles polished off in no more than three days.

        “I don't know,” Huggins said. “I like to win everything.”

UC at MEMPHIS
• When: 4 p.m. today
• Where: The Pyramid
• Records: Cincinnati 24-4, 11-4 C-USA; Memphis 13-13, 6-9 C-USA.
• TV: Channels 12, 7
• Radio: WLW-AM (700)
BY THE NUMBERS
• 42: UC turnovers in two games this week.
• 2: Kenyon Martin's fouls against South Florida, his lowest total in six games.
• 7-of-15: Steve Logan's three-point shooting in his past three games.
        The No. 9 Bearcats (24-4, 11-4) are 40 minutes from adding a 12th league title to that collection, the C-USA regular-season championship that will be theirs if they defeat Memphis (13-13, 6-9) at The Pyramid at 4p.m. today.

        The Tigers have an abundance of individual talent they have struggled to blend into a cohesive, consistent whole. But whatever challenge they present is less pressing that what the Bearcats must deal with on their own. UC appears to have become a team that fears failure more than it craves success. It is allowing pragmatism rather than aggression to govern its play.

        This is an approach the Bearcats will need to abandon or risk leaving this season with nothing more than the Great Alaska Shootout title they claimed three months ago: not the regular-season title, not a Conference USA tournament championship that would be their seventh league tourney win in eight years, and not the sort of NCAA Tournament success that merits alliteration (Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four).

        In Thursday's 64-53 victory over South Florida, UC played against the clock instead of the opposition while protecting a large lead in the final minutes for the third consecutive game. The Bearcats allowed South Florida to rally from 23 back with 9:29 left to trail by seven with 38.5 seconds remaining.

        “It's not a new thing,” Huggins said in his postgame news conference.

        Huggins does not believe the Bearcats are becoming conservative in their approach, despite the fact their running game disappears each time they build a substantial lead.

        “That might have been the case at Marquette or Saint Louis, but I don't think that was the case at South Florida,” Huggins said. “We just lose our concentration. I don't think we ever thought we were going to lose. The things we did have nothing to do with trying to be conservative.

        “The running game stopped because they don't want to exert any energy. I don't know why. We just did stupid things. It's not doing fundamental things that we'd done the first 15 minutes.”

        Of late, the Bearcats build double-digit leads with the most aggressive running they've employed all season.

        They ran the ball into their offense throughout the early stages of their UNC Charlotte win, not concerned with whether the 49ers scored or missed or turned over the ball. They ran against the pressure defense presented by Louisville. They ran after South Florida's numerous missed shots in the first nine minutes of Thursday's win.

        They passed the ball and cut to the goal as crisply as they have all season. Well, almost. “It was the second-best,” said center Kenyon Martin. “That Duke game was the best.”

        South Florida coach Seth Greenberg said his team kept the pace of the game where it needed to, with the final score in the 50s or 60s, but it the Bearcats were at least as responsible for the sudden halt to the action. They were on a 100-point pace in the first 10 minutes.

        “I didn't tell them to stop,” Huggins said. “They figured that out on their own.”

        What they figured, apparently, was if they kept running but began turning over the ball, the 17-point lead they'd built so quickly could disappear just as fast. So the Bearcats began to walk the ball up the court and passively operate their offense, their hesitance leading them to commit 22 turnovers, one short of their season-high.

        Martin and shooting guard Melvin Levett, UC's most experienced players, combined for 11 of those turnovers. Martin mitigated some of his errors with his willingness to attack the basket in the final 10 minutes. He scored three of the Bearcats' final four baskets.

        “Do you think we'd be happy?” Martin said. “They scored 14 points in the first half and 34 in the second half. I think we're more disappointed than angry, because we didn't come out and play like we did in the first half. We were up 25, and it slipped away.”

        The season has been like that. The Bearcats had a large lead in Conference USA, and much of it was surrendered in their three-game road losing streak. They still can beat the clock, though, and win a championship.

       



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