Saturday, November 22, 2003

Bearcats enter opener a work in progress


But team is more closely knit than a year ago

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some of the changes are obvious. There's a 6-foot-10 center who can score, more depth, and a slashing, athletic forward waiting in the wings.

But the biggest improvement in this University of Cincinnati basketball team isn't obvious to the naked eye. It has to do with the spirit of camaraderie that last season's 17-12 version lacked.

"We're more together on and off the court," senior guard Field Williams said. "We're hanging out more, doing things together. I think it helps us out. The more you know each other and the more you're around each other, you get a feel for that person and on the court it shows too. Last year, everybody had certain little groups."

UC begins its 15th season under coach Bob Huggins against Akron at 7:05 p.m. today at Fifth Third Arena. The 18th-ranked Bearcats are far from a polished product, but they're brimming with optimism as they attempt to put the problems from last season behind them.

Even Huggins, not known for lavishing praise on his teams until they earn it, talks optimistically about the Bearcats' prospects.

"This team has a chance," said Huggins, who was the head coach at Akron from 1984-89. "We play like we're a young team right now. We don't play hard enough. We don't play through plays. Our understanding of what needs to be done is not very good, but we have the potential to score the ball."

UC will get an early test from an Akron team that has all five starters back from a 14-14 team and is expected to be one of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference. The Bearcats have won 37 straight home openers.

Those close to the UC program say there was sometimes friction over the attempts at leadership that were made by some of the veterans.

"It wasn't the same feeling that we have this year," junior forward Jason Maxiell said.

This year the veterans are helping the younger players, as evidenced by the way Maxiell has taken center Robert Whaley under his wing. Assistant coach Keith LeGree has noticed the difference. There's no carping among the players when they run sprints and one or two of them has trouble keeping up. Instead, they encourage each other to do better.

"I think it's huge, because when you get in a fight, you've got to have everybody on the same page," LeGree said. "Last year they just didn't care about each other as much."

There are still plenty of kinks to work out. The point guard situation is unsettled. The Bearcats haven't rebounded very well in their two exhibition victories and 6-6 forward James White, who's expected to have a major impact, isn't eligible until Dec. 20.

But the UC players are so confident they're not shy about predicting great things for this team.

"In my opinion," Williams said, "I think we should go to the Final Four. Anything less and it'll be a bad season."

Said Maxiell: "I'd say at least the Final Four. That's the least. I feel that in my heart. I see it in everybody's eyes."

Cincinnati vs. Akron

Tipoff: 7:05 p.m. today, Fifth Third Arena (13,176).

Records: UC 0-0, Akron 0-0.

Radio: WLW-AM (700).

TV: Ch. 19.

UC

PlayerYr.Ht.PPG
Armein KirklandSo.6-83.4
Jason MaxiellJr.6-711.9
Robert WhaleyJr.6-1016.9
Field WilliamsSr.6-311.6
Nick WilliamsJr.6-412.1
Coach: Bob Huggins (349-112, 15th season; 517-184 overall).

AKRON

PlayerYr.Ht.PPG
Andy HipsherSr.6-89.5
Jeremiah WoodFr.6-620.0*
Nick MeyersJr.6-93.9
J. HollingsworthSr.6-117.4
Derrick TarverSr.6-420.6
Coach: Dan Hipsher (99-122, 9th season; 225-167 overall).

*Jeremiah Wood's average is from high school. The others are from last season.

---

E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com




PREP SPORTS
Panthers chasing history
Edgewood 33, Brookhaven 13
Beechwood 33, NewCath 22
Roncalli 30, East Central 29 (OT)
Prep sports schedules

COLLEGE FOOTBALL
On the line: Everything
Carr, Navarre feel heat with streak at two losses
Miami gets back to basics
Bowl unlikely; winning year still in reach for UC
Bulldogs focused on beating Kentucky
USC has both UCLA, Buckeyes in its sights
Top 25 previews
TCU to forge ahead in wake of first loss

COLLEGE BASKETBALL
Road trip will test Muskies' mettle
Bearcats enter opener a work in progress
Miami 71, Liberty 55
Kentucky 65, Winthrop 44
Northern Kentucky 88, Gannon 81
No. 3 MSU shakes Bucknell
Women: XU, UC winners

BENGALS / NFL
On a losing team again, Neal still shines
Bengals' home finale against Browns sold out
Isolation Booth: James vs. Boston
Bengals' keys to victory
Lewis leans toward starting Dillon
Spikes key to Bills' improved defense
Suspended Gardener blasts Shanahan

BASEBALL
In Stenson case, some bizarre turns
Cardinals trade Martinez to Devil Rays

IN THE NEWS
Sports digest

ON THE AIR
Sports on TV, radio

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NEXT GAME
vs. South Florida (3-4)
• 1:00 p.m. Sat. Nov. 20
• Nippert Stadium
• Radio: WLW-AM 700

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