By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SALT LAKE CITY - On the day before the NCAA Tournament's West Regional was scheduled to begin here at the Huntsman Center, there was plenty of talk about defense, about taking one game a time and all the other things basketball players and coaches like to discuss.But with the deadline for war with Iraq just a few hours away, there were also words of perspective that aren't often heard in these settings.
"This is just a game," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "War is a life-and-death situation. It's about the best interest of our country. It certainly takes precedence over a basketball game."
UC guard Tony Bobbitt said he has a cousin, Solomon Green, who's in the Marines and serving somewhere in the Middle East.
"I don't want to talk about it," Bobbitt said. "It's crazy. It's scary. I just pray to the Lord that he comes back. That's all I want."
The players said they were eager to play but also understand where the real focus of the country will be today should the war actually have started.
"The game is just a game," said senior guard Taron Barker. "They're over there fighting for us, fighting for our freedom. I've got to take my hat off to them and pray for the soldiers that are going to war for us. Basketball is going to continue, but they're over there doing something for us that means everything."
LOOKING GOOD: Huggins was asked in his press conference Wednesday how he's feeling six months after his heart attack. When Huggins replied that he was feeling fine, the reporter told him he looked good.
"People keep telling me how much better I look," Huggins said. "I must have looked like hell before."
GAINING RESPECT: Gonzaga is making its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament but its first as an at-large team.
Playing in the West Coast Conference, which is considered a mid-major league, the Bulldogs previously had to win the conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it to get in.
One reason for the new respect is a fortified schedule that included North Carolina State, Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia.
Another is Gonzaga's reputation as a giant-killer that does well in the tournament.
"Our coach has done a great job of giving us a good nonconference schedule," said forward Ronny Turiaf. "We have a good reputation now. It feels good to be a No. 9 seed."
BIG, BAD BEARCATS? Huggins is amused when he hears opponents talk about this team as having the same physical swagger that some of his previous teams have had.
"A lot of people haven't watched ESPN this year," he said. "Their ratings have to be down for people to think that we're the way we've been."
PRACTICE: UC practiced for three hours and 20 minutes on Tuesday and for two hours Wednesday before its one-hour public workout.
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