By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Never in the 31 previous years of women's basketball at the University of Cincinnati has there been the kind of hype and expectation facing the Bearcats this preseason.
Four starters return from a team that finished 27-5, entered the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time, set a school attendance record (7,246 for Louisville) and won its first NCAA Tournament game (over St.Peter's).
The Bearcats are ranked No.17 by Street & Smith's magazine and 20th by Athlon Sports, Basketball News and Lindy's.
Here's the trick for 17th-year coach Laurie Pirtle: Though she wants the community excited about her program, she also wants to make sure the players keep perspective.
| UC and Texas Christian tied for first place in Conference USA's Preseason Coaches' Poll.
The Bearcats won the league tournament last season; TCU won the regular-season title.|
UC junior Valerie King was named to the five-player all-league team.
10. South Florida
11. Saint Louis
13. Southern Miss
14. East Carolina
Preseason All-C-USA Team
Chandi Jones* (Houston), Sandora Irvin (TCU), Valerie King (Cincinnati), Teana McKiver (Tulane), Sara Nord (Louisville).
* Preseason Player of the Year
"It's a real funny place to be outside the lines and then go back inside the lines and tell the kids we're not that good right now," she said.
"We have four great, great, unbelievable returners, a couple great, great kids off the bench (Carolyn Alexander, Leslie Knoch) and a phenomenal freshman guard (Micah Harvey). It is undeniable we will be very good. From a coach's eyes, that's a different thing right now."
What the coaches see is a piece of the puzzle missing inside.
UC is trying to replace Tammy Douglass and Laura Wilder, who were not just productive post players but also great team leaders. Wilder is on the staff as a graduate assistant.
Aside from that, the Bearcats have the most starting talent in Pirtle's tenure.
Senior point guard K.B. Sharp will be in her third year as a starter and needs just 28 assists to become UC's all-time leader. Junior shooting guard Valerie King has led the Bearcats in scoring the past two seasons and was first-team all-Conference USA last year.
Junior forward Brittani Young is UC's best defender and has started 42 consecutive games. Sophomore center/forward Debbie Merrill was second-team all-league andC-USA's Freshman of the Year last season.
"We need to go out every day and work hard to prove that we deserve the rankings, which is what we're working on right now," Young said. "I think we have the talent and the ability to be that good. We just have to get our post together."
The Bearcats are hoping 6-foot-1 senior DeAnna Stevenson, a Withrow High School graduate, can take over at the other frontline position. Stevenson came to UC after two years at Cincinnati State but played a total of just 82 minutes in 14 games last season.
Anne Stephens, a 6-4 freshman, and 6-1 freshman Meghan Hillman also could help on the frontline.
The UC players are driven by last season's sour ending: a 75-56 loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bearcats were ahead 41-40 in the second half before the Gamecocks scored 25 consecutive points.
"We think about it every day," Sharp said. "They were more talented, but we were a better fundamental team running our plays. We just didn't follow through. South Carolina was an embarrassment. We're trying to take care of the things we need to do to make sure it doesn't happen again."
UC opens its season at Mississippi State, which is ranked 16th by Lindy's.
Cincinnati hopes to be playing in Shoemaker Center in March when first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games are held there.
"I never before have demanded as much as I'm demanding now - there's no question," Pirtle said. "Because I can see that it's there, that we have the talent to do it."
EXHIBITION: The UC women play their first exhibition game at 2p.m. Saturday against Met Rx Elite. The team will be introduced before the game, and afterward players will sign team posters. Admission is free.
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