Saturday, January 19, 2002

SULLIVAN: UC-Louisville


Pitino a great rival - some day

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino does not a rivalry make. Not alone, at least. And not immediately.

        Pitino will need time to bring the University of Louisville back to a level worthy of Bob Huggins' worry. He also will need talent. The new coach of the Cardinals will need a brilliant recruiting class, maybe two, before he can presume to compete with the Cincinnati Bearcats.

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        “I give Coach about another year before that will be the hot rivalry, like Maryland-Duke,” Louisville guard Reece Gaines said Friday afternoon. “The same amount of hype. The same amount of attention.”

        For now, the UC-Louisville game is more about personalities than performance. It's more about Pitino's haberdashery and Huggins' hectoring than about anything that will occur among the players at Shoemaker Center this afternoon.

        For now, Huggins owns Conference USA — lock, stock and peach basket. Since 1997, only Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have won more games than Huggins' Bearcats. Only Duke can match UC's five straight regular-season conference titles.

Still a one-team league
               Huggins needs Pitino the way Ali needed Frazier: to test his limits and maintain his interest. UC has won eight of its last nine from Louisville, seven of eight from Memphis, and has so toyed with its traditional rivals that the league was starting to look lopsided.

        Pitino is canny and charismatic, and his addition automatically elevates the league. Yet for all the adulation he has received and all the ambition he retains, Pitino is the new kid on this block and Huggins its reigning bully. Given their relative resources at the moment, it's not much of a matchup.

        “It's going to take a monumental effort on the part of our players,” Pitino said Friday. “Playing hard is not enough. We're going to have to play extremely well.”

        Two months before the NCAA Tournament, Huggins already has his seventh-ranked Bearcats polished to a March sheen. Their 16-game winning streak is the longest in the nation, and each of those 16 victories has been by double digits. Before Huggins emptied his bench Wednesday, the Bearcats were almost eerily efficient in dismembering DePaul.

        “They're far and away the best team in Conference USA,” DePaul coach Pat Kennedy said.

        “They are more athletic than we are at every single position,” says Charlotte forward Cam Stephens.

Bearcats looking good
              
Since their season-opening loss at Oklahoma State, the Bearcats have been a remarkable blend of muscle and precision. They were uncharacteristically soft last season, but diligent weight work has provided more bulk on the interior and maturing perimeter players have provided more balance to The Steve Logan Show.

        “People get excited too early,” Huggins said. “We're two game into the second half (of the season).”

        People have a lot to be excited about. These Bearcats may not be as intimidating as the collection that surrounded Kenyon Martin two years ago, but they have won the same number of games at this stage of the season and by wider margins.

        “My respect level for Cincinnati and Bob Huggins if off the charts,” Rick Pitino said.

        For now, Louisville's biggest edge over the Bearcats is in humility.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       



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