Thursday, March 04, 1999

Bearcats' woes solved or masked?

Four wins show improvement

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — There isn't anyone at UC who does not want everything to be fine, because they're nearing the point where the alternative to fine is finality.

        Things were not fine when the Bearcats lost three in a row. But are they now that UC rides four consecutive wins into today's 1 p.m. Conference USA tournament quarterfinal game against South Florida (14-13)?

• When: 1 p.m. today
• Where: Birmingham, Ala.
• Records: Cincinnati 25-4; South Florida 14-13
• TV: Channel 64
• Radio: WLW-AM (700)
• 2: Games South Florida has won in four C-USA tournaments.
• 2: Championships UC has won in C-USA tournaments.
• 7: Consecutive games UC has won over South Florida.
• 8-1: Bob Huggins' record in league quarterfinals.
        No. 7 UC (25-4) averaged 81.5 points, a 15.5-point victory margin, .495 shooting and allowed opponents to shoot .351 from the field in closing the regular season with wins over UNC Charlotte, Louisville, South Florida and Memphis — two of which will likely play in the NCAA Tournament, two of which were playing on their homecourts.

        The Bearcats allowed the first three of those teams to close wide leads to single digits in the final minutes, but never played as if they were seriously threatened.

        They so thoroughly outrebounded those teams — by 15.3 per game — that their average rebounding margin jumped from 4.4 to 6.7 per game in that stretch.

        They allowed UNCC to nail 10 three-point shots, then held the next three to 12-of-55.

        “The problems we could solve, we've solved,” coach Bob Huggins said. “I think we're playing with a lot more enthusi asm offensively, we've got a lot more ball movement, we're moving better on offense. We're finally getting to the point where we're rebounding the ball as well as I thought we might.”

        Huggins will not say what concerns could not be addressed. Whatever weaknesses exist with the Bearcats, he challenges opponents to find them.

        It was fairly easy to recognize, though, the areas in which UC struggled as it dropped consecutive games against DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis, and thus to examine whether they've recovered from their malaise. Consider:

        • Style. None of the past four opponents forced UC to play at a laggard pace. The Bearcats wound up with 64 points against South Florida, but got 22 in the first eight minutes, when the game was won.

        “The biggest thing is not throwing it out of bounds,” Huggins said. “At the end against Saint Louis, we turned it over nine of the last 12 possessions. We've got to get shots.

        “Most of our running is keyed from our defense. We're trying to get out and push it more after missed shots.”

        • Kenyon Martin's contribution. After ending up in foul trouble in each of the three consecutive losses, he averaged 25 minutes and was 16-of-21 from the field. He did not have a blocked shot in three of those games, though.

        • Perimeter scoring. The Bearcats are not as effective when uncomfortable striking from three-point range. In their losses, they attempted 11.5 threes per game, compared to 16.0 in their wins. They were 21-of-59 down the stretch.

        • The value of Pete Mickeal. In the last four games, Mickeal got more shots, more touches, more opportunities to break down the defense and produced three 20-point games. He rebounded ferociously, averaging 10.5.

        “That's how I expect to play every game,” Mickeal said, “but when you come out of junior college, it's a lot tougher at this level. I think I've found my role.”

        • Road tripping. UC's two road wins were promising, especially in the perimeter shooting department. They made 10 threes, tying their best total for consecutive road games this season.

        • Leadership and chemistry. Forward Ryan Fletcher seems more comfortable with his bench role, not only contributing 37 points in the four games but also grabbing double-figure rebounds twice.

        After he was benched, Fletcher allowed the defensive effort that once limited Duke's Elton Brand to 12 points to so deteriorate Huggins kept him to the side for all but a few moments of the UNCC game. “I think sitting over there 39 minutes, 45 seconds maybe got his attention,” Huggins said.

        The other major area of concern is point guard. Huggins at last presented the job to freshman Steve Logan, who responded with 16.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. But there still is a need for backup help, most likely from senior Michael Horton.

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