Thursday, March 20, 2003

UC foe expects aggressive 'D'


Bearcats need to be physical vs. Gonzaga's big front

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SALT LAKE CITY - At this point in the season, there are no more secrets. Everyone who has watched the University of Cincinnati Bearcats play basketball this season knows UC has trouble scoring.

[img]
Coach Bob Huggins is surrounded by his players after practice in Salt Lake City Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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But when you peel away the ugliness with which this team plays offense, there's still quite a bit of the old UC defensive grit remaining.

That defensive work ethic has defined this program the past 14 seasons under coach Bob Huggins, and although it has slipped a bit this season, it remains the Bearcats' best hope for success as they begin play in their 12th straight NCAA Tournament today.

The Bearcats have squeezed out 17 wins despite an offense that has shot less than 40 percent 12 times.

"If we didn't guard, we wouldn't have had a chance," Huggins said.

No. 8 seed UC (17-11) plays No. 9 seed Gonzaga (23-8) at 12:40 p.m. today at the Huntsman Center in the first round of the West Regional. The winner will face the winner of today's Arizona-Vermont game Saturday.

The Bulldogs, who received an at-large bid out of the West Coast Conference, arrived at the arena Wednesday knowing full well what to expect from UC.

"They play tough, on-the-ball defense," said guard Blake Stepp, the Bulldogs' leading scorer at 17.9 points a game. "When a team struggles to score, they have to rely on their defense, and that's what they do. We're expecting a really tough offensive game where we're going to have to set good screens and work hard to get open."

[img]
Jason Maxiell dunks in practice Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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Despite what has been a sub-par season, the Bearcats' reputation has preceded them here. The aura the UC program created from the Final Four year in 1992 through the Danny Fortson years and into the Kenyon Martin era still exists.

"They're athletic, tough and mean," Stepp said, when asked about his impressions of UC. "They've always got a lot of good athletes and they're always flying around and knocking guys on the floor."

The Bearcats haven't been quite as imposing this season as they have in the past, but they still hold their opponents to 40 percent field goal shooting, which ranks 13th nationally, and to 61.5 points a game (17th nationally).

They'll need all the physical play they can muster today against a Gonzaga front line that includes 6-foot-10 Ronny Turiaf, 6-8 Cory Violette and 6-8 Zach Gourde.

"If we don't play like that, our reputation doesn't mean anything," said senior point guard Taron Barker. "If they can get inside and bang us and make us look like they're the intimidators, they're going to have the upper hand."

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Eric Hicks laughs during a light moment.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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But it's not just a matter of holding their own physically under the basket.

The Bearcats also must contend with a backcourt that can score from the perimeter and open opportunities for the big men.

"That's going to be our main focus," UC forward Leonard Stokes said. "If we can put pressure on the perimeter, it will allow our big guys to get in better position defensively."

The Bearcats have been outrebounded 13 times and have been hurt repeatedly by opponents' offensive rebounding.

"Part of being a great defensive team is the ability to limit people to one shot," Huggins said. "We haven't done a very good job of that."

No one expects UC to shoot its way to victory in this tournament. But the Bearcats might be able to prevent the Bulldogs from scoring enough to keep the game close.

"You know exactly what you're going to get," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "You're going to get a very physical, tough, aggressive team that will really be tough to score on and will really compete on the glass."

Today's lineups:

CINCINNATIYr.Ht.PPG
Leonard StokesSr.6-616.0
Jason MaxiellSo.6-712.0
Kareem JohnsonJr.6-72.3
Field WilliamsJr.6-311.7
Taron BarkerSr.6-16.5
Coach: Bob Huggins (349-111, 14th season; 517-183 overall).

GONZAGAYr.Ht.PPG
Ronny TuriafSo.6-1015.4
Tony SkinnerJr.6-58.6
Zach GourdeSr.6-85.0
Blake SteppJr.6-417.9
Kyle BankheadJr.6-07.8
Coach: Mark Few (104-28, fourth season; same overall.)

Team statistics

UC GONZAGA
40.4FG%47.0
40.0Opp. FG%42.5
34.23 pt.%37.6
34.6Opp. 3 pt.%37.2
69.0FT% 72.1
67.3PPG 77.1
+ .2Reb. Margin+6.2
+ 3.2Turn. Margin + .3




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