By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Leonard Stokes and some of his University of Cincinnati teammates were sitting in their dorm Sunday night watching ESPN when they heard the announcers talking about their first-round matchup with Gonzaga.
"They were laughing," Stokes said. "They were saying that we were going to lose. We just took that as motivation as we were watching it."
No. 8 seed UC (17-11) faces No. 9 seed Gonzaga (23-8) at 12:40 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the West Regional at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
As the players and coaches boarded their bus early Monday evening for the ride to the airport and their flight to Salt Lake City, the atmosphere was light and confident. Freshman Eric Hicks mugged for a TV camera. Some of his teammates signed autographs. Indeed, there's no reason to be uptight. Not anymore.
The UC players understand that no one expects much out of them as they head to the NCAA Tournament.
"A lot of people think we shouldn't be in or we had a down year," Stokes said. "But we've got another chance. We've got to go out and make the best of it."
At UC, they're not accustomed to such a lack of respect in March. The Bearcats, after all, have won at least one NCAA Tournament game for eight straight years. Only Kansas (13) and Kentucky (11) have longer streaks.
UC is 156-41 in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth best record in the country.
But this year, UC is barely an afterthought in the West Regional, considered mere fodder for No. 1 seed Arizona if it gets past Gonzaga.
"There's no pressure," junior guard Tony Bobbitt said. "It's a whole new ballgame."
UC's No. 8 seed is the lowest the Bearcats have received, matching their 1994 seed when they lost to Wisconsin in the first round.
This is a team with nothing to lose. Whether that translates into freer, looser play remains to be seen.
"I don't think it makes any difference," UC coach Bob Huggins said.
The perception of the Bearcats as a tournament team has evolved over the years. After their Final Four drive in 1992 and the 1993 drive to the Elite Eight, they were known as a team to be feared in the postseason.
In recent years, their reputation has slid to where they're regarded as tournament underachievers. That perception was underscored last year when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose, falling in the second round to UCLA.
This year, with eight losses in their last 12 games, the Bearcats would surprise a lot of people if they're still standing after the first weekend.
"We're not going to be favored," Stokes said. "We've just got to go play. It's just us and the coaching staff going out there. That's all we have to worry about is our team and our coaching staff."
It's been a difficult year for many of these players. They've been criticized in the media and on talk radio for not living up to the standards of previous teams, were thrown out of their locker room by their coach and at one point stopped talking to reporters.
But all that's left now is the fun part of playing the
gamesand seeing how far they can advance.
"People are going to criticize us for the good and the bad," Bobbitt said. "We've just got to come out ... and play as hard as we can."
UC tickets will be available at noon today and can be purchased at Shoemaker box office or by calling 556-2287.
UC vs. Gonzaga
When: 12:40 p.m. Thursday
Where: Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
Seeds: UC - No. 8; Gonzaga - No. 9
Tickets: Available at Shoemaker box office at noon today, or call 556-2287.
COMPLETE NCAA TOURNAMENT COVERAGE
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OTHER COLLEGE HOOPS HEADLINES
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