Sunday, March 07, 1999

UC may still get No. 2 seed

But Bearcats hardly peaking

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The last piece of coaching advice Mike Deane may deliver for a while was fully embraced by the Cincinnati Bearcats.

        Before being fired last week by Marquette, Deane warned UC's pursuit of the Final Four would be diminished by an all-out sprint to the Conference USA tournament title. He suggested that the energy and emotion spent on what amounts to an exhibition would be better conserved for the NCAA Tournament.

        No. 7 UC (26-5) should have plenty of both in reserve. The Bearcats played last week as though they felt they belonged in a better league than this one. They'll get their chance, sort of, when the NCAAs open Thursday and Friday.

        “Losing hurts all the time,” junior center Kenyon Martin said, after the Bearcats were eliminated from their league tournament for only the second time since 1992. “We had a chance to win this year, but we didn't come together.”

        The Bearcats still have not lost to a team from outside Conference USA. They still own the only victory over Duke — even if it's more than three months old, they're the only team that's done it and not many have come close.

        They rank among the NCAA's best in overall winning percentage, in Top 100 victories (12) and in winning percentage against Top 50 opponents (8-3, a .727 percentage) — better than Maryland, St. John's, Arizona or Kentucky.

        They were ranked No. 7 by the Associated Press last week. UC may have pulled out a No. 2 seed as a result of games played elsewhere Saturday.

        You can expect the Bearcats will not be placed in the Midwest Region, where Kentucky is almost certain to be a No. 2 or No. 3 and shipped to New Orleans, where their legion of fans will help fill a Superdome that otherwise promises to be loaded with empty seats.

        It would seem highly unlikely UC would be placed in the East, where top-ranked Duke will open its pursuit of a national title at Charlotte. It's hard to imagine the NCAA selection committee putting the Blue Devils in position to possibly need a win over the only team to beat them in order to reach the Final Four.

        Auburn's loss means it will probably lose a No. 1 seed to Stanford, which would stay in the West and play its first-round games in Seattle. Auburn will be a second seed, probably in Orlando. UC could accompany the Tigers as a No. 3 or, if elevated to a No. 2, may play first-round games in Denver.

        The Bearcats' seed will not matter, though, if they don't address problems that have persisted since their unbeaten streak ended at 15 games:

        • Desire. The UNCC game was decided just as surely in the first eight minutes as in the final 30 seconds.

        The Bearcats executed their offense as well during the first nine possessions, getting five baskets and 11 points along the baseline. They cut off UNCC's primary threats — forward Galen Young and guards Jobey Thomas and Diego Guevara — from access to the ball in scor ing position.

        Instead of pulling to a comfortable lead, though, UC allowed 6-5 power forward Tremaine Gardiner to hit three jump shots. UC's Martin admitted he didn't think Gardiner would score if he merely put a hand in his face. Had Martin put himself in Gardiner's face instead of his hand, Gardiner would have been powerless. He does not own the quickness or ballhandling ability to get to the basket from 20 feet away.

        “This team has to defend,” Huggins said. “When we guard, we're a pretty good team. When we don't guard, we struggle.”

        • Trust. The difference between UNC Charlotte's championship in the C-USA tournament and UC's departure was that one team's bench expanded while the other's contracted.

        The 49ers got an average of 17 points from their bench, although injuries, illness and other circumstances removed most of their talented reserves.

        UC is believed to be the only team in Division I that had 12 scholarship players score in double figures this season, but the player rotation shortened as this season progressed.

        Huggins no longer is trusting his backups. His displeasure with the defensive efforts of freshman Eugene Land, sopho more Aaron McGee and junior Alvin Mitchell is obvious from their lack of playing time.

        In two games in Birmingham, they combined to play 11 minutes and score five points. The only UC reserves to get double figures in minutes were point guard Michael Horton and forward Ryan Fletcher. Even Fletcher was down to 14 against UNCC because of Huggins' displeasure with his defense.

        • Execution. That the Bearcats failed to run the play called to set up a final shot when they trailed by one was poor enough, but they were worse in the last five seconds of the first half.

        With two fouls to give before UNCC would enter the bonus, the Bearcats were told to make a play for the steal and not be concerned about running into UNCC guard Kedric Smith as he advanced the ball. Instead, they let him dribble up the court and backed away as he fired a three-pointer which connected. UC lost the game by three points.

        “It's inexperience, I guess,” Huggins said.

        “You hope they come out with a little more resolve. You hope they learned something. We'll go back and wait for the selections and prepare for who we play.”


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