Monday, March 17, 2003

Bid gives UC new beginning

After a difficult season, the slate is wiped clean

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nervous? Bob Huggins nervous?The University of Cincinnati basketball coach would never admit to such a feeling on Selection Sunday. After all, he knew his Bearcats had done enough to merit being picked as an at-large team for their 12th consecutive NCAA Tournament.

No, he wasn't nervous as the names kept going up on the television and UC wasn't there.

Gonzaga guard Blake Stepp talks to reporters after Gonzaga was awarded an at-large invitation to their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament. Ninth-seeded Gonzaga will face eighth-seeded Cincinnati in the first round of the West Regional in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
He was, however, a bit anxious as three regional brackets were filled without the Bearcats.

"I thought we were an eight or nine seed," Huggins said. "When you have to go to the last eight-nine, you get a little anxious."

Finally, UC (17-11 and No. 29 in the Ratings Percentage Index) was called as a No. 8 seed in the West Regional. The Bearcats will play No. 9 seed Gonzaga (23-8) out of the West Coast Conference at 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

If they beat Gonzaga, they will likely play No. 1 seed Arizona in the second round. The Wildcats play No. 16 seed Vermont in the first round.

UC and Alabama (17-11) received at-large bids with the fewest amount of victories.

"We did what we're supposed to do," Huggins said. "They say play a great schedule and our schedule was (rated) anywhere from sixth to ninth. We would have liked to, and probably should have won more games, but we did what they asked us to do."

The Bearcats played in the same building in the 1995 NCAA Tournament, beating Temple in the first round before losing to Connecticut in the second round.

With 12 straight NCAA appearances, only Arizona (19), Indiana (18) and Kansas (14) have more than UC.

This is a team that has failed to live up to the UC tradition in many respects this season. It ended a streak of seven straight regular-season Conference USA championships and a string of 11 straight years in which UC has won either a regular season or conference tournament title.

But the NCAA Tournament streak, the most important one, remains intact. Preserving it was a relief to senior forward Leonard Stokes.

"It means a lot," Stokes said. "We did a lot of things this year that teams in the past haven't done. At least we kept this streak alive."

Stokes' teammates echoed that theme after the tournament brackets were released. Sure, it's been a tough season, but that's all behind them now.

"This is March," said junior guard Tony Bobbitt. "This is what we live for. This is when you're a kid and you watch on TV and say, `I'm going to play there someday.' "

Huggins maintains that UC can make it to the Sweet 16 if it can suddenly find a way to make shots.

The Bulldogs, with a big, strong, physical front line, are expected to play a lot of zone defense, which should present the Bearcats with the very perimeter shots they have so much trouble making.

"We didn't live up to the expectations people had for us," said freshman forward Eric Hicks. "But this is a new season now. All that's going to change."

Said Huggins: "I've heard that before."


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• Nippert Stadium
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