Sunday, January 09, 2000

Bearcats know No. 1 means nothing until March


Tournament performance is what counts

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        None of this really matters right now. College basketball in January carries all the lasting significance of the New Hampshire primary. It is a time to tune up, to take stock, to evaluate, to tinker. The real campaign is just beginning.

        Because Arizona beat top-ranked Stanford Saturday while the University of Cincinnati was mauling Marquette 67-48, the Bearcats figure to regain their No. 1 ranking in the next set of national polls. Yet aside from their relative place in wire reports and SportsCenter highlights packages, the Bearcats are not all that much better off than they were at the start of practice Oct. 15.

        They were terrific then. They are tremendous now. They have been the nation's No.1 team, at least in terms of talent, all season long. All the polls really do is confirm the obvious.

        “It's no big deal,” Pete Mickeal said. “We've been No.1 before. It's just a ranking.”

        A 64-team NCAA Tournament has rendered college basketball's regular season almost irrelevant. It diminishes ancient rivalries and trivializes conference play. If you're not on the bubble for the Big Dance, you might as well winter in the Bahamas, because you won't be playing a meaningful game before March.

        Until then, the toughest opponent for Bob Huggins and his Bearcats may be boredom. They are so good, so deep, and so assured of a lofty tournament seed that their greatest challenge these days is to find motivation in the mundane.

UC staying focused
        Some of the spectators lingered at Shoemaker Center Saturday night, awaiting the final score of the Arizona-Stanford game. Five forward-thinking students — brothers Brandon and Justin Dobbs, Shawn Dolan, Mike Tucker and Geoff Baldwin — spent Saturday afternoon preparing signs encouraging Arizona.

        But the Bearcats players remain notably unimpressed with themselves and their place in the college basketball pantheon. Kenyon Martin, asked about the prospects of being No.1, replied with, “No comment.”

        “We're playing hard, and that's all we can do for right now,” Martin said. “We've got to keep it going.”

        Saturday's stampede makes UC 14-1 on the season and extends its Shoemaker Center winning streak to 38 games. The Bearcats have played two games all season that were decided by fewer than 10 points. Their average game ends 81-60. Their games tend to feature capacity crowds and minimal suspense, like public hangings.

        “It's a dynasty,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “They deserve everything they get.”

        Whether they deserve Huggins' vote in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, however, is yet to be determined. Not that Huggins would ever acknowledge having the nation's No.1 team.

        “You can take Stanford and Connecticut and maybe Arizona right now and probably us and shake 'em up,” Huggins said. “I don't know if there's a whole lot of difference.”

        Then he shrugged. Coaches care a lot about the rankings when the tournament bracket is being filled, but they devote January to perfecting their team.

Turning good to great
        Once upon a time, before the proliferation of videotape, college basketball coaches added wrinkles to their offense and their forehead at roughly the same rate. They were like vaudeville comics, refining the same basic routines for years because they were always playing to different audiences.

        The shelf life of new material is much shorter now. Today's nuance is tomorrow's cliche. With the development of cable and satellite broadcasting, there are no longer any secrets. Every team is overexposed.

        “When we were working with 16-millimeter film, it cost you $1,000 for a color game film,” said Chuck Machock, the UC coach-turned-broadcaster. “You had to work to get a game film, and if you got one, you kept it. Now, you can cut a tape for $10.”

        To stay ahead of today's curve, coaches must continually improvise. Huggins introduced several changes to his full-court game Friday. None of the changes was particularly radical, but all of them required some attention to detail. Collectively, they served the larger purpose of preventing practice from growing stale.

        “We're a work in progress,” Huggins said Saturday. By March, they may be a monster.

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

       



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