Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Huggins works magic, again

UC coach survived season of ups, downs

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANAHEIM, Calif. — Bob Huggins has prodded and plotted. He has screamed and taught, soothed and savaged, shuffled lineups and roles and strategies. His University of Cincinnati Bearcats have won and lost and won some more, enduring adversity, inconsistency and growing pains to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

        Few would have expected this team to go this far after losing four starters from a year ago. But all season, Huggins has reached deep into his bag of tricks to make sure his players weren't among the non-believers.

        “This unit has developed as well as any he's had,” said former UC assis tant coach Chuck Machock, now the team's radio analyst and a close friend of Huggins'. “That's where I say I feel he's done his best coaching job.

        “The toughest thing (is) not putting X's and O's on the board, it's handling each individual personality and making it a team. That's the strength of what he can do.”

        Fifth-seed UC (25-9), which plays top-seeded Stanford (30-2) on Thursday night, has improved over the past two months.

        “There was very little consistency in what they did; that was the hard thing,” Huggins said of the team. “It wasn't so much knowing what they could or could not do, it was with what

        frequency they were going to do it. I didn't know if Donald (Little) was going to show up to play that day, or B.J. (Grove) was, or J.D. (Jamaal Davis) was.

        “I haven't coached one team here in 12 years the same. You deal with different personalities and different people differently. Some guys, especially at this level, if you don't get on them some, they're not going to ever realize their potential.”

        Huggins has tinkered with his tactics as well as his personnel. Cincinnati has pressed full-court in small doses. It has played some zone defense. Sometimes, Huggins makes a switch for just a possession or two, trying to change momentum. And in a season full of close games, every possession has mattered.

        Instead of trying to rely on either Grove (20 starts) or Little (13) at center, Huggins has shuffled the two, who have different strengths. One night, Little plays 35 minutes; the next night, 17. One night, Grove plays 31; the next, 11. Huggins even uses them together when they are not in foul trouble.

        He has juggled the small forwards, starting Leonard Stokes for 14 games, then Immanuel McElroy the next 20. Those two have played together. Both have handled the ball when needed.

        Last weekend was a perfect example of how UC has been able to win different ways. When the Bearcats played Brigham Young, they double-teamed 6-foot-9 Cougars forward Mekeli Wesley, trapping him down low and making him try to force passes through long UC arms.

        A player who averaged just 2.28 turnovers a game finished with four and was clearly flustered early.

        In the second-round game against Kent, UC had to slow down Golden Flashes guard Trevor Huffman, so Huggins sent out a second player — usually one of the taller Bearcats — to help chase Huffman and force him to give up the ball. Which he did, barely looking for his shot most of the game. A player who came in averaging 17.1 points a game scored only seven.

        These Bearcats took a while to develop a personality. They were not tough-minded early in the season. There were games Huggins felt his players lacked effort, and nothing galls him more.

        He twice banned them from their locker room, saying they weren't playing like the champions who previously dressed in that space. He took away their practice uniforms, saying they didn't deserve to wear the University of Cincinnati logo.

        He got football players straight from the weight room to hit his big men with heavy pads during drills so they would learn to score and rebound inside against contact.

        “He pulled more strings in the first week than I've ever been through,” Davis said. “His competitiveness really brings out his personality as far as how bad he wants to win. I think he'll do whatever it takes to motivate us within his power and will. I think it rubs off a bit, because we don't want to see him in a tyrant mood.”

        Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has said: “A season is a lifetime.” Huggins is prone to remind all: “It's a marathon, not a sprint.”

        Because of that, he mostly remained patient throughout this season, confident there was a way to progress. He just had to find it.

        He kept his players from getting too high or too low. He stressed that winning on the road should be no different from winning at home.

        Last season's squad could run, play halfcourt, defend when needed. This year was a greater coaching challenge. It was perhaps Huggins' least talented team in a decade. Six players were new to the program. Only two had any substantial experience coming in.

        In the end, UC willbe considered as overachieving. And maybe a little lucky. It got to the Sweet 16, in part, because of some favorable matchups in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. It won a sixth straight Conference USA regular-season title, in part, because other teams faded in the final weeks.

        But the Bearcats have won eight of their last nine games. And ending a drought of four consecutive second-round NCAA losses means that Huggins won't have to answer questions about bowing out early throughout the offseason.

        “There's always satisfaction in winning,” Huggins said. “Why wouldn't there be? Absolutely. These guys keep getting better and better. I'm happy for them. By and large, the majority of them have really worked hard.”

        And now he has them playing in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.

        “I think it meant a lot to him,” Davis said. “I know he had a lot of slack about not getting past the second round. Now I think he's feeling a little better about the situation. But knowing the competitive guy he is, he's not done.”

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