Monday, March 08, 1999

Bearcats fall to No. 3 in Duke-led East




BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It did not take long for the Cincinnati Bearcats to see what they'd done to themselves. The CBS selection show for the NCAA Tournament hadn't even made it to the first commercial break when they discovered how far they'd fallen.

        From early February when they owned one loss and appeared to be a lock to receive a No.1 seed to the moment the NCAA pairings were announced, so much happened to the Bearcats. A lot of it bad, most of that self-inflicted.

        Instead of a top seed, UC (26-5) wound up with a No.3 and a first-round East Regional game Friday at Boston's Fleet Center against George Mason (19-10), champion of the Colonial Athletic Association.

        Instead of being as far removed as possible from top-ranked Duke, atop the West or South brackets, the Bearcats are grouped with the Blue Devils for a possible meeting in the East final at East Rutherford, N.J.

        “We had an opportunity,” said UC center Kenyon Martin. “We didn't capitalize on it. I think it would have helped if we'd won, but we didn't. We've got to accept it like men and go out and play.”

        The turbulent Saturday that saw four top 10 teams defeated made the Bearcats keenly aware of what they could have gained with a Conference USA tournament championship.

        The No.1 seed in the West was theirs for the taking, but they'd already been taken Friday night by UNC Charlotte.

        Without the league tournament title, and with a 6-4 finish in their final 10 games, the Bearcats dropped in the eyes of the committee.

        Although UC was 8-3 against Top 50 teams on the Ratings Percentage Index scale, a better record against the elite than belonged to No.2 seeds Maryland, Utah and Stanford, they were ranked behind those schools.

        The Bearcats are the 15th major-conference team since 1993 seeded lower than No.2 with a winning percentage over .800.

        “We lost four of our last 10,” said Bearcats coach Bob Huggins. “That apparently has a lot to do with it.”

        It was extremely surprising to see UC placed in the same region with Duke, given the Bearcats' early-season victory in the Great Alaska Shootout championship game. The Blue Devils have not lost since. Given their dominance, it stood to reason they would not be placed in the position to possibly play the only team that beat them in order to reach the Final Four.

        “Does that mean we were the 12th-best team?” Huggins asked. “I don't know what that means.”

        UC never has been a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (seeding began in 1979). This is the second time under Huggins it has been a No.3. The Bearcats last were a third seed in 1996 and lost in the second round to Iowa State.

        The Bearcats' second-round game would come Sunday against the winner between Atlantic 10 regular-season champion Temple (21-10) and Mid-American Conference tourna ment champion Kent (23-6).

        This is the fourth time in the past five years the Bearcats and Owls have been positioned to play in the NCAA sub-regionals.

        The Bearcats would advance to East Rutherford, N.J.,for a March 19 regional semifinal if they were to win their first- and second-round games, but they've not managed that since 1996, when they squeezed past UNC Greensboro and easily handled Temple.

        The past two years, despite seeds of No.3 in the Midwest and No.2 in the West, UC has dropped second-round games by a single point.

        That led to the Bearcats being included in conversations regarding tournament underachievement that usually begin with Kansas, which has been eliminated as a No.1 seed four times before the regional finals.

        “Sitting back, really this weekend was an eye-opener for me,” said senior guard Melvin Levett. “All it takes is for one brain cell to be somewhere else, and wherever that is, it kind of corrupts your whole game.

        “I'm not pointing a finger at one guy or whatever. It's a team thing. We've just got to do a better job. We need to come together and really, really make a run at it. Because we can.”

- Bearcats fall to No. 3 in Duke-led East
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