Thursday, February 20, 2003

UC at lowest point under Huggins

By Joe Kay
The Associated Press

Bob Huggins sounds as beaten down as his team. After a massive heart attack on Sept. 28, the driven coach was determined to recover fast because he knew his latest Cincinnati team needed a lot of work.

The recovery has gone well. The team is an entirely different matter.

The Bearcats have lost five of their last six games - their deepest slump during Huggins' 14 seasons - and are in such disarray that their 49-year-old head coach is out of ideas.

"I came back and coached because I knew they needed it," said Huggins. "I knew it was going to be a hard year. We won some games early and were hoping we could make a run at it."

Instead, they're making a run in the other direction as perhaps the biggest underachievers during Huggins' career in Cincinnati.

Huggins' early Cincinnati teams were rebuilding projects. Still, they managed to play hard and avoid deep slumps. In only his third season, the Bearcats reached the Final Four.

With only one returning starter this season, Huggins knew he had a work in progress. After a 13-3 start, it appeared that the team was getting in position for an eighth straight Conference USA regular season title.

Then, they imploded.

A 58-55 loss to Saint Louis on Tuesday night left Cincinnati 14-8 overall and 6-5 in the conference, with little chance of another title. The Bearcats are 1-4 against Top 25 teams, with games remaining against Marquette and Louisville.

Their centers and power forwards have trouble scoring and rebounding, their guards have trouble shooting, and no one has emerged as a leader. Huggins rages on the sideline just as much as he did before the heart attack, but the only thing the screaming gets him these days is a crimson face.

"I probably haven't done a good enough job," he said, after Saint Louis got its first victory in Cincinnati since 1982.

The problems began when none of his four centers did well enough to win the job in the first month of the season. Senior guard Leonard Stokes - the lone returning starter - went through long stretches of ineffectiveness. The newcomers failed to play Huggins' all-out style.

Two players quit in frustration with their backup roles, then returned a few days later. Fans have started giving up, too - the Bearcats got booed off the court at halftime Tuesday.

"I don't blame them," Huggins said.

The biggest problem is the lack of a leader. Stokes was the logical candidate, but his quiet personality isn't suited for taking charge. When times get tough, everyone stands around and waits for someone else to do something.

Or, somebody tries to take control and does something regrettable.

"Last year, they could depend on Steve Logan to give them 30 points when they needed it," Saint Louis coach Brad Soderberg said. "This year, they don't seem to have someone who can do that. If (Field) Williams is not hitting shots, they're a defendable team."

Williams, their 3-point specialist, is prone to streaks and is shooting only 36 percent from the field. He and power forward Jason Maxiell were a combined 7-for-25 as Cincinnati shot 29 percent from the field against Saint Louis.

"They had Kenyon (Martin) the first time I played against them," said Marque Perry, who scored 20 points to lead the Billikens. "Then they had Kenny Satterfield and Logan. They've had great scorers. This year, they've got scorers, but they're not as good."

As the losses have multiplied, the players have stopped talking to the media. Huggins closed practice Wednesday, leaving no one available for interviews. Another time, he banished his players from the locker room. It didn't work.

Despite the problems, the team still has a good shot at the NCAA tournament.

"They bury us here in town before they bury us nationally," Huggins said. "That's what happens. We're still in there. We've just got to win some games."

UC still NCAA-bound, analysts say
UC at lowest point under Huggins

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