Sunday, March 05, 2000

Stop and enjoy this not-so-regular season




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Fans celebrate UC's 16-0 conference record.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Savor this. Before every road leads to Indianapolis, before every evening ends with Billy Packer, before we become consumed with The Big Dance and forget all the sock hops that preceded it, let us pause for a moment to ponder the most remarkable regular season Cincinnati has ever seen.

        Let us spend five minutes contemplating the achievement of Bob Huggins' Bearcats before we begin concocting conspiracy theories concerning the NCAA selection committee. Let us celebrate an extraordinary season without concern for what may follow in the field of 64. Let us not take 28-2 for granted.

        The Bearcats ended their regular season with an exclamation point Saturday evening, flattening the St. Louis Billikens 84-41 and completing the first perfect conference season since collegiate hoops came to Clifton in 1901.

        Those who could fail to appreciate this feat have no sense of proportion and no idea of the difficulty of beating Louisville in Freedom Hall.

        No, Saturday's stampede did not guarantee a spot in the Final Four, nor even a reprieve from a tournament rematch against Temple. Yet in the course of two convincing hours at Shoemaker Center, the Bearcats completed their Conference USA campaign at 16-0, regained the dominant look they have lately been lacking and resoundingly reclaimed their No. 1 position in the national polls.

        Savor it, because you may never see it again.

        St. Louis was leading 7-4 when the scoreboard revealed top-ranked Stanford's loss. By the time the Billikens scored again — more than four minutes later — Kenyon Martin had scored twice, Ryan Fletcher made a three-point play and Pete Mickeal had returned from his brief academic exile rejuvenated.

        All systems are again go. If Martin does not win all the national Player of the Year awards, they should melt the trophies for scrap metal. If the Bearcats are not accorded the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region — and the convenience of opening the tournament in Cleveland — it can only be because the rest of the country has conceded. If Huggins is hard-pressed to suppress a smile, who can blame him?

        “It's hard to go undefeated in any league,” St. Louis coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Conference USA is one of the top three or four conferences in the country. For them to run through the league the way they did, that's a special, special, special year for them.”

        Because the Bearcats have been tested so infrequently, there is a natural tendency to minimize their majesty. Dominant teams often require the validation of ultimate victory before they are fully appreciated, while teams that struggle for success are sometimes seen as more heroic.

        “It was almost like it was an expectation rather than a great accomplishment,” Huggins said.

        There is no denying excellence, however, and the manner in which UC obliterated a respectable St. Louis team was a testament to a team of extraordinary talent playing pretty close to its peak.

        With Mickeal playing some of his most inspired defense of the season, triggering the press, creating chaos, the Bearcats forced 26 turnovers and so rattled the Billikens that the visitors tended to rush their shots when they were able to clear halfcourt.

        Imagine how hard it will be for those teams that have never seen the Bearcats before.

        “We played pretty good,” Mickeal admitted. “I don't know if we can play much better.”

        Mickeal paused in mid-thought and realized he had been rash. “We can rebound better,” he said.

        All teams are capable of improvement. The Bearcats may not win it all, and they are well aware of how that would play after three successive second-round tournament losses.

        “The tournament is what people — the media — label us by,” Mickeal said. “Around the country, it's "Who cares about our record, they'll get knocked out in the second round.'”

        For this reason, the Bearcats are not inclined to smell the roses just yet. The savoring will have to wait till there's no more work to be done.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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