Monday, March 22, 1999

COMMENTARY


Early exits not Huggins' fault

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Maryland, they complain Gary Williams is a “Sweet 16 coach.” Arizona's Lute Olson hears questions after a fourth one-and-out disaster this decade. And Bob Huggins of the Cincinnati Bearcats is barbecued locally for three consecutive second-round losses.

        This is what the NCAA Tournament can do to even the most successful college basketball coaches. Its unforgiving nature has led to brutal criticism of coaching legends like Dean Smith, Guy Lewis, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun.

        No matter what stage of the tournament defeat occurs, there is someone to recognize how often it happens. Even Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who made four trips to the Final Four before 1991 but hadn't won a national championship, was villified by certain members of his public.

        The early reaction to UC's third straight second-round NCAA Tournament exit reflected that sort of hysteria, which is neither healthy nor constructive for the program or its fans.

        There were suggestions Huggins was not the coach UC needed, that it was nearly unforgivable to make the round of 16 just once in five seasons and even that the Bearcats — who started four high school products but whose best player was junior college transfer Pete Mickeal — still were too reliant on JC products.

        It is ludicrous to expand the definition of Huggins' presumed failures to include the Bearcats' inability to advance past the tournament's first weekend in 1994 and 1995. Neither of those teams was seeded to reach the Sweet 16, and they were a combined 14-10 in the Great Midwest Conference.

        A common statistic raised against Huggins is that he has never won against a team with a better seed. He is being assailed for an inability to conjure the unexpected. And how many opportunities has he had in this circumstance, in eight years of coaching the Bearcats to the tournament? Two.

        It also would be disingenuous of Huggins, though, not to say that UC has not accomplished all it might have in the past three years. He once took tremendous pride in constructing a program that achieved peak performance in March.

        Part of what makes a successful tournament team is the luck of the draw, being assigned matchups that favor your team. The Bearcats have had bad luck in this sense.

        In a season in which they could not handle defensive pressure, they were seeded No. 2 but faced a West Virginia team that defended the entire court. When struggling to play teams that stacked defenses in the lane this season, they were a No. 3 seed stuck with a second-round game against Temple's matchup zone.

        Part of what makes a truly successful team, of course, is being able to respond to any sort of challenge. This is where the Bearcats must improve. That seems to be the course they are following.

        UC has paid the past three seasons for recruiting problems which are being improved upon by Huggins' current staff of Mick Cronin and Rod Baker.

        The Bearcats did not land a more complete point guard between 1996 and 1998 than Charles Williams and Michael Horton, neither of whom made a three-point shot in a combined three seasons.

        UC generally has lacked perimeter players who could function in Huggins' system and create their own offense

        Now, UC's recruiting appears to be moving more toward the sort of complete players who tend to survive in the tournament. McDonald's All-American guard Kenny Satterfield appears to be the most gifted guard at UC since Nick Van Exel. Forward Eugene Land proved his scoring ability as a freshman and needs only to learn defense. Centers Donald Little, who redshirted this year because of an elbow injury, and B.J. Grove show promise.

        The right players can make coaches appear to be extremely smart when the NCAA Tournament begins.

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