By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It doesn't seem that long ago that Leonard Stokes was a skinny freshman trying to figure out what would make University of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins happy.
Less than a year out of high school, he found himself on the No.1 college team in the country with such stalwarts as Kenyon Martin and Pete Mickeal.
When he got into a game, he did what he could but basically tried to keep from getting in the way.
UC vs. AIA
When: 8:05 p.m.|
Where: Shoemaker Center.
Tickets: At gate.
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
Series: UC has won seven of the last nine meetings vs. Athletes in Action.
Last meeting: UC won, 82-70 (Nov. 16, 1999).
Now he's a senior, one of the few remaining links to UC's winning tradition. He looks at the crop of struggling newcomers and understands what they're going through, even if his situation wasn't exactly the same.
"I had more guys to follow," Stokes said Wednesday.
UC, which plays Athletes in Action at 8:05 p.m. today at Shoemaker Center in the final exhibition game of the preseason, will be looking to improve on Saturday's slipshod 71-51 win over Northern Kentucky.
No one is expecting that improvement to come in giant strides but in tiny increments.
"We're going to be like this for a couple of weeks," assistant coach Andy Kennedy said. "We're still searching for the right combinations, trying to make guys realize they have to sustain a high level of intensity. That's certainly a work in progress."
The Bearcats were ranked No.23 in the first Associated Press Top 25 poll that was released this week, so they're more highly regarded than they were last year at this time, when they were unranked.
But no one, least of all Stokes, is pretending this team is the equal of that one, which went on to win a school-record 31 games.
"Last year, we had a better understanding as far as defense because we had a lot of guys returning," Stokes said. "That was a special team. We came out every day and we practiced pretty good. We had confidence in each other and we just got on a roll after that first loss. We just busted it every day. We left it all on the court every day."
Stokes has yet to see that kind of effort from this year's team. But that's not to say he won't.
"We want everyone to understand what it takes to come out every day," he said, "what it takes to win all those championships."
AIA is expected to provide an accurate gauge for measuring the Bearcats' progress since Saturday. AIA lost to Kentucky and Alabama by just one point each.
UC has lost only two of its last seven meetings against AIA, but one of those losses was by the 1992 Final Four team.
"They've been great for us," coach Bob Huggins said. "They've been the best exhibition game we've had. They've all been close."
AIA players are mostly former college players who have a solid understanding of the game. They are physical and usually have one or two outstanding long-range shooters.
Huggins is expected to use a different lineup from the one he fielded against NKU. The only sure bets to start are Stokes and sophomore forward Jason Maxiell. The Bearcats are looking for answers at point guard and center, so look for someone other than Rod Flowers and Taron Barker, last week's starters, to fill those spots at the outset.
This will be the last tuneup before the Nov.23 season opener at home against Tennessee Tech, which means there's a sense of urgency about speeding up the development process that Huggins has talked about during the preseason.
"We open with a heck of a basketball team," Huggins said. "A year ago they won the Ohio Valley Conference and won 27 games. They've got great veteran leadership and great guards. We're going to have to get a whole lot better in a hurry."
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