Sunday, January 24, 1999

UC has style, but is it the right one?


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes, basketball is recess. Sometimes, it is homework. The St. Louis Billikens are like full-contact calculus.

        You might reach the right answer eventually, but getting there is bound to be a grind. Trying. Tedious. Tortuous.

        “If we played that physical, we might shut somebody out,” Bob Huggins said Saturday, after his University of Cincinnati Bearcats outlasted the Billikens, 55-44. “They do a great job of figuring out how to bump and do things that don't get called. I was thinking about getting tearaway jerseys for the trip over there.”

        Huggins was not complaining. Not about the Billikens, anyway. He is a close friend and ardent admirer of St. Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour, and if he had comparable talent, he would surely adopt similar strategy.

        But Huggins has better talent — superior talent — and he expects to get more out of it, maybe enough to go all the way. He expects his Bearcats to squash inferior teams beneath their sneakers with the same savage sadism they demonstrated Thursday night in Louisville. What he saw Saturday, therefore, was disconcerting. For the first time this season, the Bearcats made more turnovers (18) than field goals (17).

Tough enough
        Huggins coaches a team that is 18-1 and fifth-ranked in America, but he continues to fret its toughness.

        Saturday's game showed up as a natural lapse on the schedule — two days after the fracas in Freedom Hall, five days before the annual Armageddon against Xavier. It was natural to assume the Bearcats would be hard-pressed to reach an emotional peak three times in a span of eight days in the middle of January. It is Huggins' job to pounce on the slightest lapses so that they don't resurface in March.

        “We just don't sustain things,” he said. “Haven't all year. If there's one thing we haven't been able to get through, it's to keep plodding.”

        Transition basketball is child's play. Half-court hand-to-hand combat is a job for seasoned professionals. It emphasizes patience and precision over instinct and athleticism. It is work.

        “Like practice,” said UC's Pete Mickeal.

It's style, not stylish
        St. Louis' lurching style of play, in particular, is not conducive to balletic basketball. Rather, it suggests Chris Farley auditioning for Chippendale's on Saturday Night Live. There are plenty of moving parts, but the composite picture is not too pretty.

        “I'm sure it was frustrating for them,” said St. Louis forward Ryan Luechtefeld. “We didn't let them play the game that they would like to play. We were able to guard them well enough to keep it in the 50s.”

        During one stultifying stretch of the second half, the Bearcats went six minutes and 11 seconds without producing a point. Overlapping that span, St. Louis achieved a six-minute, 26-second scoring drought.

        “It goes back to concentration,” said UC forward Ryan Fletcher, whose jump shot finally ended the futility with 6:16 left in the game. “They denied every pass. They didn't give us anything easy. They didn't let us run the stuff that we wanted to run.”

        They had to know this going in. An overmatched team invariably tries to compensate for its lack of personnel by cutting down on the number of possessions. If you nurse the clock, shoot prudently and well, you can sometimes keep a game close long enough to catch lightning or cause panic. This is what Villanova did to Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game. It is what Charlie Spoonhour endeavored to do Saturday at the Shoemaker Center.

        “I tried to explain to 'em that if we didn't jump on 'em early, it was going to be like that,” Huggins said.

        The Bearcats did jump on St. Louis early — it was 7-0 after the first 65 seconds — but what followed was worrisome. Sometimes, like last Thursday, basketball can be exhilarating. Saturday, it was excruciating.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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