Saturday, March 06, 1999

Nothing ever comes easy for Bearcats

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It's officially a single-elimination season for the University of Cincinnati. They never do anything easily in Clifton, anyway. Why start now?

        The Bearcats will not win their seventh conference tournament title in eight years. Their record in league tournament games in that span drops to a disgraceful, uh, 18-2. Other than that, so what?

        UNC-Charlotte — the finest basketball-playing hyphen school in America — beat them at their own slamdancing game. “They expect to intimidate you,” offered Charlotte's Galen Young. “But we already beat them once. You have to knuckle up and play.”

        Charlotte won 55-52. The significance in that for the 49ers — icing an NCAA Tournament bid — was far greater than what the loss meant to UC.

        The Bearcats played Friday night to make sure they stayed a No. 2 seed, with some hope that another C-USA title would make them a No.1. The difference between a 1 and a 2 in the Madness is not much.

        Basically, UC was playing to stay in fine tune and to make the league some money. If you're looking for a reason to pay players, making them play in a conference tournament is a good one.

        Not a lot of people witnessed this game, anyway. The crowd was pitiful, perhaps to be expected in a state where interest fades when the ball doesn't spiral.

        The highlight of the night may have been the Twilight Zone-ish appearance in the crowd of erstwhile UC point guard Charles Williams. Williams is suing UC, but was in town to cheer the Bearcats on. “It hurts to be watching basketball now,” Williams said, and this was before the Bearcats shot 1-for-17 from three-point range.

Last-possession nightmare
        But if it seems easy to shrug off this loss, it shouldn't be. Take UC's last possession.

        The Bearcats had the ball at halfcourt with 22.1 seconds left, down 53-52. Charlotte laid back in a zone defense. UC didn't swing the ball. Steve Logan took forever getting the offense going, then passed the ball to Melvin Levett on the left wing.

        Levett was 0-for-8 from three-point range. Levett was terrific a day earlier against South Florida, and he started the same way last night, scoring 11 of UC's first 25. But from the deep water, Levett couldn't hit the ocean from the boat.

        “If Melvin was going to shoot it, I wanted him to have a wide-open look,” Bob Huggins said. Levett was double-teamed.

        The play was supposed to be Logan's, either to shoot off a screen or to dump the ball on the wing to Levett or Pete Mickeal. “We kind of panic, don't get as good a shot as we'd like,” Huggins said. “Steve gave it up too late. Inexperience, I guess.”

        Levett tossed up a three that grazed the side of the rim, and that was that.

Calling Kenyon
        Also, feel free to wonder about Kenyon Martin. I used to say Martin was a basketball-playing Corey Dillon. But the referees have gotten into his head and set up housekeeping. The attacking, shot-blocking menace that Martin used to be has been replaced by a guy who too often plays like he wants to avoid a whistle.

        Martin was Martin for about seven minutes of the second half, and it wasn't coincidence the Bearcats took a brief lead during that time. If Mickeal is this team's conscience, Martin is its brass-knuckled heart. When other teams talk about UC's ability to intimidate, they're talking about Martin. He can't play on tiptoes, or frustrated.

        “Can you accomplish what you want in the tournament with Martin playing the way he is?” I asked Huggins.

        “No. But it's not just Kenyon,.” Huggins said. Not when UC makes one of 17 from three, while Charlotte makes 7-of-15. “This team has got to defend, or it can't win,” said Huggins, repeating a mantra he's used for a decade. “When we don't (defend), we struggle.”

        It's always a struggle in Clifton. It begins again next week, when on one will care about the C-USA tournament.

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

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