Sunday, January 17, 1999

Huggins has team where he likes it

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Before the game he wore a look that said, “Get out of my face or I will hurt you.” Somebody would pay for the loss on Thursday. Kenyon Martin wasn't particular about who.

        He nearly took Pete Mickeal's head off Friday, and that was in practice. The pair had to be separated by Melvin Levett before they committed flagrant fouls on each other.

        “Two of our leaders fighting,” Levett explained. “That isn't going to happen.”

        It was the best screen Levett has set all year. “Huggs wasn't going to stop it,” Levett added, referring to UC coach Bob Huggins. “He likes stuff like that.”

        The Bearcats came into Saturday's game with a mad-on. They left with a 72-59 win over Oklahoma. It may not have erased the loss at UNC-Charlotte. One of the hazards of being 15-0 is having to feel bad for being 15-1. But it reset the tone for the year.

        It's the same tone Huggins wants to set every year. Namely: We will beat you up, and then we will knock you out.

        Martin shrugged when someone asked him about the physical play of Sooners forward Ryan Humphrey. “It doesn't matter,” he said. “We lift weights 12 months a year.”

        The 13-point win over the Sooners, ranked 26th in the coaches' poll, was bare-knuckled

        enough that after the game OU's best player admitted the Bearcats had intimidated him.

        “I'd have to say I was, you know?” said Eduardo Najera, who goes 6-8 and 235. “They were just so athletic. You didn't know what to do.”

        In the first minute, Martin grabbed a shot in mid-flight and slapped the ball like he was popping a balloon. Goaltending. No matter. “That was to let 'em know I was there,” Martin decided.

        A few minutes later, Martin whapped a shot into the first row. Goaltending again. No matter. By then, Najera's eyes were as big as saucers. Sometimes, muscle-flexing is worth the penalty.

        They are ready now, don't you think? UC may not have the consistent perimeter shooting you like. Levett's jumper comes and goes. Steve Logan needed 12 shots to score 12 points Saturday.

        The Bearcats don't have one player to lean on when they have to have a basket. There will come a game, maybe Thursday at Louisville, when they're down two with five seconds to play. Who takes the shot?

        They don't know that yet. But here is what they do know. Here is what was established Saturday:

        They will take no stuff. Not from each other, and certainly not from you.

        They were mad about the loss Thursday. “We got outrebounded,” Martin said. “That don't happen too often around here.”

        They were mad, or at least Huggins was, about an ESPN story that rehashed their graduation rate, or lack thereof. (For the record, the 0 percent rate that has received so much publicity is as misleading as Clinton's statements to the grand jury. But that's another column.)

        The chip had returned to their considerable shoulders. And that was good.

        “I take losing personal,” Martin said. He finished with three blocked shots, not including the goaltends. Also 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals. Meanwhile, Najera and Humphrey went a combined 7-for-25.

        Said Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson, “Martin swatting your shots away is going to effect lots of guys. If that ball hits the rim and Kenyon Martin wants it, if you don't block him out, he'll probably get it.”

        UC led by as many as 15 in the second half, and never by fewer than seven. The Bearcats weren't dominating. They weren't smooth. They were simply relentless and unwilling to repeat what happened on Thursday.

        As Sampson said, “They're not pretty like Duke. Duke makes the game look easy. Cincinnati's kids have things that aren't teachable.”

        They don't take any stuff, mainly. “They're no meaner than anyone else we play,” OU guard Tim Heskett said. Tell that to Najera, whose eyes got big.


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