Sunday, March 17, 2002

Bearcats brace for Bruins' best

UCLA unpredictable but talent-laden

By Michael Perry,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — Exactly who is the favorite and who is the underdog here?

        No.1 seed Cincinnati brings an impressive 31-3 record into today's game with eighth-seeded UCLA, which has three McDonald's All-Americans in its starting lineup.

        The Bearcats did not play any opponent ranked in the final Associated Press top 10 this season. The Bruins (20-11) can claim victories over No.2 Kansas, No.7 Arizona and No.8 Alabama.

        “It's not a David-and-Goliath battle,” UCLA senior Matt Barnes said.

        That's for sure.

        UCLA and UC square off at 12:10 p.m. today in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Mellon Arena. It's the first meeting between the schools since December 1965.

        The winner advances to the Sweet 16 and will play 12th-seeded Missouri (23-11) in the West Regional semifinals Thursday in San Jose, Calif. Tigers have defeated No.5 seed Miami (93-80) and No.4 seed Ohio State (83-67).

        The Bearcats have bowed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament four of the past five years; last season, they advanced to the Sweet 16. UCLA is 4-0 in second-round games under coach Steve Lavin.

        The motto for both teams Saturday: Final Four or bust.

        “Anything less than the Final Four is going to be a disappointment,” Barnes said. “There's just something in the air. We feel good right now.”

        “I think we come into this game not worried about the great tradition UCLA has had,” UC senior Jamaal Davis said. “We're going to take this game head on.”

        It will be a contrast in styles.

        The Bruins are taller at almost every position. Their shortest starter is 6 feet 6 — at least half a foot taller than UC's All-American Steve Logan. “Their guards are bigger than our power forwards,” UC coach Bob Huggins said.

        UCLA will play zone most of the game. It has packed it in to stop inside players and extended the zone to stop perimeter players. UCLA's players have long arms. That could present problems for the Bearcats.

        “Our zone, when we're playing it effectively, is very difficult for opponents to get good looks against,” Lavin said. “We played it for 40 minutes against Kansas, for 40 minutes against Stanford, for the majority (against Mississippi) and even over the years in the tournament against Michigan (1998) and Maryland (2000).

        “Most of our big wins have been with our matchup zone because we're pretty big and we're long. If teams make 3s against us, they're going to beat us. And if they don't, we have a pretty good chance of winning.”

        At the same time, Cincinnati's defensive pressure is a concern for UCLA. Several Bruins talked of needing to play hard for 40 minutes to keep up with UC.

        UCLA doesn't always play with that kind of sustained effort.

        “I think they'll have a hard time scoring in the halfcourt against us,” UC senior Immanuel McElroy said.

        Here are five keys for the Bearcats:

        1. Take care of the ball. UC, which had only three turnovers against Boston University, can't afford to throw the ball to the Bruins, who love to get points on the run.

        2. Hit 3-pointers. That's a good way to offset a zone defense. The Bearcats would like to penetrate the zone and either get 10- to 15-foot jumpers or pass back out to open shooters.

        3. Rebound. Can't allow second shots.

        4. Rebound. Need some second shots.

        5. Rebound.

        “You've got to get first blood,” Huggins said. “You can't stand there and let guys come and bang you and knock you under the goal, and we did that a lot (against Boston University).”

        In UC's second-round NCAA loss to Stanford last year, the Cardinal won the rebounding battle 36-25.

        The Bearcats are fine with it becoming an uptempo affair. Cincinnati actually averages more points a game than UCLA (77.6-74.1).

        “We'd love to run up and down,” Huggins said. “We just don't get to run up and down very much. People have a tendency to play a little more close to the vest against us. Wake Forest ran up and down and we had a lot of fun.”

        This much is agreed upon in both locker rooms: UCLA — like UC — has the talent to contend for a national championship and is capable of beating any team in the country.

        But the Bruins don't always come out and play that way.

        “I think they're the most talented team we've faced this year,” Logan said. “They're a powerhouse, we're a powerhouse; we're just going to go at it.”

        Cincinnati has won five straight and rolled through its last four opponents by 22, 16, 14 and 38 points.

        UCLA ended a two-game losing streak with its 80-58 victory over Mississippi on Friday night, but it has dropped four of its last seven games.

        “I like our kids' mind-set.” Lavin said. “Obviously Cincinnati's a 1 seed playing in their backyard. It's a long shot, but our kids are playing well.”

        Told many did not consider his team a long shot at all, Lavin laughed and said: “We haven't heard that out in Los Angeles, where the negativity is so great. I didn't realize anybody was giving us a shot. That's good to know that people around the country respect our program.”


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