Monday, February 12, 2001

Strong finish key for Bearcats' NCAA chase

Xavier, Kentucky in good shape after scoring weekend victories

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The University of Cincinnati's hopes for a 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid could end up like many of the Bearcats' games: Going down to the wire.

        UC is looking good after Saturday's victory at Southern Mississippi, but what really favors the Bearcats is this: They are the highest-ranked team — by far — in Conference USA in the Ratings Percentage Index at 29.

        Selection Sunday is one month away, and there are several teams across the country for whom these final weeks of the regular season are critical.

        Xavier (27 RPI) is in great shape. Kentucky (14) is playing for a high seed. Miami (119) will watch again. Dayton (79) is likely to be NIT-bound. Ohio State (32) and Indiana (24) need to make sure they finish above .500 in the Big Ten.

        One factor the selection committee looks at is how teams finish. That may be a factor for several teams.

        Of the area schools, UC has the most interesting scenario. Simply put: Conference USA is a bundle of mediocrity. Southern Mississippi plummeted to 70 in the RPI after losing at Tulane last Wednesday night and looking awful against the Bearcats.

        Marquette dropped to 75 after losing at Louisville on Thursday night. Memphis (86) beat South Florida (87) on Wednesday night but is just 14-9 overall.

        If the Bearcats win the conference tournament, the league might be hard-pressed to get a second team in the NCAA.

        UC needs a strong finish just in case it doesn't win the tourney.

        Xavier likely locked up a bid with its victory over Temple on Saturday. The Musketeers' toughest remaining games are at Massachusetts on Wednesday night and at Dayton on March 4. It could lose both, stumble in the Atlantic 10 tournament and still get an at-large berth. If the Musketeers continue winning and do well in the conference tournament, they could receive a higher seed.

        Kentucky could make a run at a No.4 seed should it finish strong. The Wildcats are coming off a 76-57 victory over Mississippi State and should be a top-25 team.

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