Sunday, December 12, 1999

Huggins looking for killer instinct


'We're not on course to be great'

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To press or not to press? That is the question.

        Whether to grind an overmatched opponent into a fine powder, or to temper one's basketball defense enough to preserve the other team's dignity. Whether to grab for a guy's jugular or take pity on the poor sap.

        These are the kind of issues that confront the coach of the No.1 team in the country. When that coach is Bob Huggins, and that team is the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, bet on blood lust.

        UC extended its spotless season to 7-0 Saturday night with a 74-48 mauling of Mississippi Valley State. To those in attendance at the Shoemaker Center, the evening's chief suspense consisted of guessing when the 'Cats would call off the dogs. To the Bearcats players, though, the tension was as thick as an Alfred Hitchcock film festival.

        “We knew if they got 50 points, we were going to have to run,” UC guard DerMarr Johnson said. “Right after the game.”

Second-half stupor
        In search of the means to motivate his sometimes enigmatic squad, Huggins decreed that merely beating the Delta Devils was not going to be good enough. He wanted two halves of razor-edge rebounding and in-your-shirt defense, an effort worthy of a more formidable foe. What he got were 20 minutes of mastery and 20 minutes of mediocrity. Again.

        The Bearcats held Mississippi Valley State to 13 points in the first half, but barely succeeded in avoiding postgame sprints. Mississippi State scored four points in the game's first eight minutes, but outshot, outrebounded and outscored the Bearcats in the second half, with fewer turnovers.

        It promises to be a long week of practice for the nation's top-ranked team. No coach in the country can make an undefeated team feel more undeserving than Bob Huggins.

        “If we want to be good, we're on course to be good,” he said. “We're not on course to be great.”

        Huggins has been after his team all season to finish what its starts, to play with the same passion and focus in the final minutes that it brings to the opening tip. He knows there are games left to play that will require a maximum effort until the final buzzer. He isn't convinced his team is prepared to play them.

        This is why the Delta Devils returned to the court after intermission, Saturday, trailing 45-13, and confronted by unrelenting full-court pressure. Huggins wasn't worried about winning the game at that point, but in cultivating a commitment to excellence among his players. Mississippi Valley State continued to struggle against UC's traps, but the Bearcats were unable to spring as many of them because they stopped hitting their shots and dominating the backboards.

Need to finish
        Huggins substituted more liberally in the second half, and some of the players he put on the floor were sloppy. Had it not been for the 50-point limit, the whole second half might have devolved into garbage time.

        “We had a terrible second half,” Johnson said. “It felt like we lost.”

        “I love playing in the big games,” Pete Mickeal said. “It's the little ones that we need to work on.”

        UC was simply too quick, too nimble and too tough to be beaten Saturday night. Had Huggins' defense been much more suffocating in the first half, he'd be hearing from the homicide cops this morning.

        “Maybe they didn't have to play that hard to be victorious,” said Lafayette Stribling, the Mississippi Valley coach. “But I'm a firm believer that if you meet an ant, kill it with a sledgehammer. Or it might come up and sting you.”

        Stribling, whose team has started the season with seven losses in eight games, has seen too much to expect mercy. Huggins has too much talent to tolerate lapses. The coach of a top-ranked team must sometimes balance the desire to avoid needlessly embarrassing an opponent with the need to work on weapons that must be polished for better competition.

        If the Bearcats don't tighten their press against the Mississippi Valley States of college basketball, it isn't likely to be of much use in March. If Huggins can't develop a killer instinct during blowouts, he will be hard-pressed to create it under duress.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

UC 74, Mississippi Valley State 48
Land's eligibility to be evaluated
Shootout week starts today for fans