Tuesday, March 16, 1999
Beating Duke only highlight of sad season
UC didn't play up to potential
BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Their epitaph will read, simply, They beat Duke. This is a pleasant distinction for the Cincinnati Bearcats, but college basketball does not fondly remember the heroes of November.
The Bearcats celebrated that victory in the Great Alaska Shootout title game like few since, even the one at Memphis that earned them a fourth consecutive Conference USA title. They seemed to lose their joy somewhere on the way to another premature elimination from the NCAA Tournament, this time Sunday in the second round of the East Regional against Temple.
The Bearcats did not dislike each other or their coach so much as they seemed to dislike being the team that beat Duke. They did not hunger for the possibilities that victory suggested.
And so that is about all they will be left with.
They have their league championship and another glittering regular-season record 27-6 but again were not able to turn that into the kind of March badness that once was taken for granted in this program.
In the six games we lost, said junior forward Pete Mickeal, we didn't do what Coach wanted us to do. It was very disappointing. You don't expect to go undefeated at the college level, but that's what I expect.
By the end of the season which came so much sooner than expected it was painfully obvious what coach Bob Huggins believed the Cincinnati Bearcats did not do well as a basketball team.
We just don't have a lot of perimeter shooters.
It wasn't quite as clear what UC did do well.
Sometimes they pressed, most often not.
Sometimes they ran, most often not.
They seemed rarely to do the things that would help them score baskets.
As UC's regulars frustrated Huggins by performing passively when he called for pressure defense, he decided to pull the Bearcats back into a halfcourt approach that worked to produce one of the nation's lowest defensive field-goal percentages but did not help generate the offense they lacked.
After their three-game losing streak in early February, Huggins encouraged them to run after missed shots. The push lasted for a couple games, then faded.
When Temple used its matchup zone to fortify the baseline and snapped hard on the wings to keep Melvin Levett from driving and Steve Logan from shooting, there was room for UC's post players to flash to the foul line and shoot open jumpers. They didn't move.
Kenyon Martin, Jermaine Tate and Ryan Fletcher rarely used their size to establish solid low-post position and make themselves available for entry passes.
We've got to do a better job creating scoring opportunities off rebounding the ball, scoring opportunities off our defense, Huggins said. We have too many guys they don't guard on the perimeter.
It is puzzling why UC took a team of fullcourt players and turned them into a halfcourt team, but the most nagging mystery about the Bearcats is why junior Alvin Mitchell was not permitted to answer Huggins' concerns about a lack of perimeter scoring.
While Shawn Myrick and Michael Horton were consuming nine minutes of playing time without addressing the lack of outside punch, Mitchell sat through most of the game and only got to take one shot.
Even though he all but disappeared from the rotation in the final two months of the season, Mitchell still finished with 31 three-pointers. It's difficult to erase the picture of Mitchell making a clock-beating three-pointer and tough scoop shot in the closing minutes of the Duke win, or of him dominating the overtime period in the victory at Minnesota.
Huggins insisted Mitchell was not adept enough at playing point guard to man the position (although he could not have been any more inept than Horton) and would not set aside Levett to use Mitchell at shooting guard.
Huggins overlooked his team's offensive errors and shortcomings the way he never would tolerate defensive lapses. Thus the Bearcats' offense completely disappeared in nearly a third of the season all six defeats, as well as labored wins over Minnesota, Dayton, Southern Mississippi and Saint Louis.
Duke is teaching all of its challengers the importance of being sound at both ends of the floor. Defense may win games, but basketball wins championships.