Friday, January 22, 1999

Bearcats make a loud statement




BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — When he's right, Melvin Levett is the picture of who the Cincinnati Bearcats want to be: Athletic and muscular, capable of soaring and shoving, occasionally at the same time.

        With 1:44 left in the first half here Thursday night, Levett stole a pass in the backcourt and drove the length of the floor. As he changed the ball from his left hand to his right, Levett rose to the height of the rim and slipped a finger roll over Louisville's Tony Williams and through the hoop.

        The play took a blink of an eye. It said all anyone needed to know about UC's intentions here Thursday night.

        One game doesn't define a season. But it helps. The statement the Bearcats laid on the Cardinals had some meanings all its own.

        Levett's hoop made it 40-23 UC. By halftime, Cincinnati held a 42-26 lead and a ridiculous 26-9 rebounding edge. Because rebounding is 75 percent want-to, what that said was obvious enough.

Questions answered
        We came into this game with questions about the Bearcats, starting with: Is it possible to be fifth best in the country and second best in your conference? By gametime, Louisville was a 1 1/2-point favorite.

        How good is this team? A better question: How can you tell?

        After this game, UC's only real test is at home Thursday, against Xavier. The Musketeers are on a nine-game roll. They shouldn't be able to stay with the Bearcats, especially close to the basket. But they've done it before, and emotion is a powerful thing.

        We wondered, too, about UC's toughness away from home, its consistency, its point guard. Shawn Myrick started there Thursday night in a three-man rotation.

        Come back, Keith LeGree. All is forgiven.

        We had these wonders. None seemed to matter Thursday night.

        You are not supposed to come to Freedom Hall and dent the home team this way. You do not visit Louisville and make the home team look out of place. The Cardinals have won here only 84 percent of the time.

        Understand: The regular season means everything to Louisville. The Cardinals are NCAA probationers, banned from March Madness. Pending an appeal they aren't likely to win, the Cardinals will be home in March. Their future is now.

        They didn't play that way. Not at all. UC shoved them around inside. UC solved their press. The Bearcats went 11 players deep. They ran three different players at point guard. For as much effort as was expended, they made it look nearly effortless.

        UC wanted it more, and that is a strange thing to say about a Denny Crum team in a big game.

        By the end, Cincinnati could have named the score. The Cardinals had the pluck to cut UC's edge to nine once, early in the second half. The Bearcats responded by going on a 17-4 tear, and that was that.

        When Levett wasn't flying, Pete Mickeal was doing the heavy lifting underneath. In one three-minute stretch, Mickeal scored on a pick-and-roll, a spin move into the lane and an all-effort follow-up.

        That made it 66-44 UC with 7:20 left. The rest was a playground muscle flex. UC won that, too.

March is what matters
        Since at least the Tony Yates days, UC has used the Louisville games to measure the program's progress. It's no different now.

        When Yates was coaching, the Cardinals would show Cincinnati how far it had to go. In Bob Huggins' time, they've showed UC how far it has come. And what's left to do.

        We aren't talking about poll position or RPI ranking or even if the Bearcats can win another conference title. All of that is nice. But when you're ranked fifth, the only matter is March.

        Are you ready for March, what do you need to get ready and how hard will that be? Between now and then, those are the only questions that count.

        UC established a little something Thursday night. We'd come wanting some answers. By the end, we'd forgotten the questions.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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