Wednesday, March 03, 1999

C-USA tournament useless to UC?

Little to gain but fatigue

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — This thing is like a treadmill. The Cincinnati Bearcats may run hard, they may run fast, they may grow stronger and fitter and more self-confident, but they will be in the exact same position when they cease.

        There is nothing, really, for the No.7-ranked Bearcats (25-4) to gain from winning the Conference USA tournament, which begins with four first-round games today at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

        Another trophy, which would be their seventh of the eight awarded by C-USA? An automatic NCAA bid when its invitation has been a foregone conclusion for a month? More proof of their dominance over the rest of the league?

        Coach Bob Huggins thinks the Bearcats are fighting for a No.2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and are not completely out of the running for a No.1 despite the recent three-game losing streak.

        The issue of whether they have something to gain, though, is less pressing than whether they might sacrifice something larger in the pursuit of this championship. Is playing and winning three games in three days — especially with the championship played at 12:30 p.m. EST Saturday after a semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday — a detriment to the more worthy goal of winning four games in two weeks and advancing to the NCAA Final Four?

        “Cincinnati is a team that's notorious for playing well in the tournament, and I keep telling Huggs all the time he'd be better off to lose in this thing, not spending all the emotional and physical energy he does,” said Marquette coach Mike Deane.

        “His team has a chance to go very far in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the fact they lost a few games in a row. Once you get outside the league, where coaches and teams aren't as familiar with your team and plays, things go well for you as long as you have mental and physical energy.”

        Huggins points out UC reached the Final Four in 1992 and the Elite Eight in 1993 after winning the Great Midwest tournament. In those tournaments, though, UC only had to win two games to claim the league title.

        In 1996, the Bearcats again reached the Elite Eight after winning Conference USA with three victories on consecutive days, although they struggled unexpectedly in a first-round game against UNC Greensboro.

        “Every year that we've advanced, we won the conference tournament,” Huggins said. “So I don't think it makes a big difference.”

        In the 1990s, three teams have won the NCAA title after winning conference tournaments, including Kentucky last season. Two did not compete in tournaments. Four claimed the NCAA championship after failing to win their own league, including Kentucky in 1996. There may be no resolution to this debate.

        Deane speaks from personal experience. Marquette had to win four games in four days to claim the Conference USA title in 1997. His team was exhausted and subsequently destroyed by Providence in the NCAA first round 81-57.

        A similar demise came to Providence three seasons earlier, when Rick Barnes was coach and the Friars made a surprising run through the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. They drew a No.8 NCAA seed opposite Alabama, but were dropped in the first round.

        “I knew we were in trouble as soon as we got through with the celebration,” said Barnes, now the coach at Texas. “They took us upstairs into a room at the Garden. When the selection show came on, and when our name popped up on the board against Alabama, there was absolutely no emotion in the room.

        “We were on such a high ... we just never came down from it. You go out and try to win every game you play, but you do have to have the maturity that once the conference tournament games are over with, you've got to get to the next one or it's one and done.”

        UC has lost only one NCAA first-round game under Huggins, in 1994, and he believes that might have been the one Bearcats team adversely affected by its pursuit of a league tournament championship.

        That also was one of his youngest teams, with freshmen Dontonio Wingfield, Damon Flint and Darnell Burton ranking as three of the top four scorers.

        “I couldn't get the emotion back, and we all knew it,” Huggins said. “But we probably had to win the tournament to get there. It was close.”

        When the Bearcats failed to reach the Sweet 16 last year, it was not exhaustion that caused them to labor to defeat Northern Arizona or to lose to West Virginia in the second round.

        “It was not a factor at all,” said center Kenyon Martin, who thought it was more a matter of taking Northern Arizona lightly and not being able to “get it going” against WVU's pressure defense. He enjoys the challenge of competing in the conference tournament.

        “Teams that know you well are going to take things away, and when you do what you want to do anyway, that's the mark of a good basketball team.”


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