Monday, March 12, 2001

Huggins finally cracked the code




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        Bob Huggins typically errs on the side of optimism in evaluating his team's prospects for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. You take his projections with a grain elevator of salt, subtract a couple of ladder rungs for the last-minute lobbying of a biased observer, and arrive at a prediction customarily more conservative and inevitably more accurate.

        Except for now.

        Huggins had the selection committee nailed Sunday afternoon, and he was one of the few around Shoemaker Center who wasn't at least a little surprised. The Bearcats remain unranked in the polls, unremarkable in the frontcourt, and stand only 31st in the RPI.

        Had the selection committee assigned seedings corresponding to a team's RPI position, the Bearcats would have commanded a No. 8 seed. Instead, they have been treated as one of the nation's top 20 teams and received a promising draw in the West Regional — a first-round game against Brigham Young; a prospective second-round match with Indiana or Kent State.

        Someone evidently saw something in the Bearcats that wasn't obvious to everyone. Either that, or the committee has tired of Huggins' tirades.

        “I was shocked to see a five seed,” UC center Donald Little said. “I was expecting an eight seed or a seven seed.”

        “I thought we'd be about a six or seven,” said swingman Leonard Stokes, “since we lost yesterday.”

        (Since most of the Bearcats were unable to identify Brigham Young as the essential Mormon, soliciting their opinions might be a dubious idea. Still, all of them seem to understand that their road to the Final Four has fewer obstacles than it might).

        Huggins' calculations were based on the belief that the committee places a premium on recent performance — it does — and that the surprising results in many conference tournaments would mitigate UC's loss to Charlotte in Sat urday's Conference USA championship.

        “I've been trying to tell people that with all the upsets and everything that was going on, that would push us up,” Huggins said. “I thought we'd be a five, no lower than six, but I've been wrong every year.”

        Sunday's bracket would suggest Huggins has finally cracked the code.

        Whether the seedings will stand up to scrutiny three weeks from now is speculative, but the difference between a No. 5 seed and a No. 8 seed can be considerable. If the Bearcats are able to advance, they could not face top-seeded Stanford until the Regional semifinals in Anaheim. If eighth-seeded Georgia Tech beats St. Joseph's Thursday night, the Yellow Jackets would likely face Stanford Saturday.

        Since 1980, 15 teams seeded fifth or higher have reached the Final Four, but only one (11th-seeded LSU, 1986) has made it with a seed higher than eighth. The law of averages does not always prevail, but that's the way to bet.

        “I don't know if it (the seed) makes that much difference,” Huggins said. “It's more a matter of the style you play and who you play against.”

        Two years ago, lacking a legitimate 3-point shooter, Huggins' main hope was to avoid Temple's matchup zone. UC lost to the Owls in the second round.

        The previous year, Huggins feared pressing teams, and wound up watching his team suffocated in the second round by West Virginia.

        UC's luck of the draw looks better this time around.

Cincinnati.com tournament coverage



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