Tuesday, March 09, 1999

Sweet 16 failures leave sour taste

Bearcats hope 2nd-round upsets thing of past

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here is a statistic that would make anyone proud to be a Cincinnati Bearcats basketball fan: In the past four seasons, only two schools have earned top three seeds each year in the NCAA Tournament.

        UC and Kentucky.

        Here is a statistic that would make anyone who is a Bearcats fan cringe: In the past two seasons, only two schools that earned top three seeds each year were eliminated before the Sweet 16.

        UC and South Carolina.

        “I think we do have something to prove,” said Bearcats junior forward Ryan Fletcher. “There's a big difference between getting to the second round and making it to the Sweet 16. Granted, it's just one game, but there's more to it.

        “If you say you went to the Sweet 16, I think there's more respect there than if you say, well, we lost in the second round. Because then they could say you had an easy game in the first round and then you played somebody that was respectable and you didn't win.”

        The No. 11-ranked Bearcats (26-5) will endeavor to relieve themselves from this burden by winning two NCAA Tournament games — starting Friday at 12:15 against George Mason (19-10) at Boston's FleetCenter — and advancing to the East Regional semifinals next weekend at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.

        In 1997 and 1998, UC dropped second-round NCAA Tournament games by a single point each time, to Iowa State and West Virginia. Such is the nature of college basketball that, for many, the Bearcats came to be defined by these disappointments rather than the teams (51 in two years) they defeated or the Conference USA championships they won (two regular-season, one tournament).

        Achievement in the NCAA Tournament supersedes all else, and underachievement is so easy to define (or allege) because of the seeding process.

        “It's not nearly as important to me as it is to some people who write and talk about it all the time,” coach Bob Huggins said. “There's been a lot of circumstances, and even with some of the circumstances that were beyond our control, I mean, we were right there.”

        The Bearcats certainly had horrible luck in both of their second-round defeats. In 1996, point guard Charles Williams removed from the lineup before the tournament because of eligibility questions. They met Iowa State in the second round and led by one entering the final minute, then came up with the necessary defensive stop to preserve that edge. But guard Dar nell Burton was knocked to the floor by a Cyclones player after grabbing the rebound. He was called for traveling by official John Cahill, and Iowa State scored the game-winning basket after taking possession.

        Last season against West Virginia, even with point guard Michael Horton struggling against the Mountaineers' pressure defense and turning the ball over eight times, the Bearcats had a two-point lead with only seconds to play. They lost when WVU guard Jarrod West dribbled up court and launched a desperate three-point attempt that UC's Ruben Patterson knicked with his fingertip. It struck the high off of the backboard and dropped dead through the goal. If the shot had not been deflected, it's possible it would missed.

        Of such curiosities are these NCAA Tournament labels constructed. Huggins has a 13-7 NCAA Tournament record at UC and has been to at least the Elite Eight three times in seven seasons. No matter. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun is regarded by many as a substandard tournament coach even though he is 16-7 and has reached the Elite Eight three times also.

        And what kept UConn from reaching the Final Four? In 1990, it was a Christian Laettner jumper just before the buzzer in overtime. In 1994, Huskies All-American Donyell Marshall missed two free throws in the final seconds, either of which would have delivered a victory over Florida in the Sweet 16.

        “You can't worry about it. People are going to say what they want regardless,” UC center Kenyon Martin said. “We can't let the games get close. We have to go out and be the dominant team from the start ... taking the fight to them instead of letting them take it to us.”

        The Bearcats say they understand that in order to survive this weekend it must first survive George Mason. They should. They nearly lost to Northern Arizona in last year's first round.

        “We can't be thinking ahead, judging by what happened to us the last couple years, with our luck,” said senior guard Melvin Levett. “You're not going to hear any talk about us looking down the road.”

        But the Bearcats recognize that success cannot be achieved in this tournament without at least two wins, and that failure beckons otherwise.

        “The last two years, we really had good regular seasons, and then in the postseason, we kind of had a letdown,” Fletcher said. “I think we have to get there just to show we are a respected program and that the regular seasons weren't a fluke.”


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