Thursday, February 5, 2004

Crosstown crossroads

UC's point guard, inside deficiencies have been exposed

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nick Williams has had costly turnovers in the past two games.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
After three losses in five games, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats find themselves at a crossroads in a season that began with so much promise and now threatens to unravel down the stretch.

Tuesday's 71-69 loss to Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout once again exposed the 10th-ranked Bearcats' weaknesses: If you can withstand their full-court pressure and get them into a half-court game, the team that seemed so invincible through November, December and the first half of January now appears dangerously vulnerable.

No. 10 UC (15-3), which took its NCAA-mandated off day Wednesday, plays at Conference USA foe Houston (8-11) on Saturday afternoon.

The two most glaring weaknesses for the Bearcats, who failed to convert a field goal in the final 6:30 of the XU game, are the same weaknesses that hurt them last season.

Although UC has greatly improved its perimeter shooting from a year ago, it still doesn't have a point guard who can create a shot during crunch time or a big man who can score close to the basket when the Bearcats need a field goal.

"We were hoping that through recruiting we would have a guy down there who could score, but that hasn't worked out," UC coach Bob Huggins said after the XU game late Tuesday night.

Robert Whaley, the 6-foot-10 junior-college transfer, was supposed to be that guy, but he continues to struggle on both ends of the floor.

And at point guard, Nick Williams, another junior-college transfer, has had some shining moments - he's averaging 8.4 points a game and has reached double figures nine times this season - but twice in the last two games has thrown away the ball with the game on the line.

Williams, who has never played point guard extensively, has been asked to make a huge adjustment in his game, and he's having a difficult time.

The greater mystery is Whaley, who, with his size and touch around the basket, should be a force down low to rival former UC great Danny Fortson.

The difference is that Fortson was more than willing to do the tough, physical work around the basket that Whaley seems uninterested in.

"Danny had to be great," Huggins said. "That was just Dan. That was in him. These guy aren't like that."

With Whaley becoming less and less of a factor and with Armein Kirkland still struggling with his knee injury, the depth that had served UC so well during the first half of the season isn't what it once was.

And as things have gone sour, the Bearcats haven't had anyone step forward and assume the leadership needed to overcome adversity.

"Our two guys who have been our hardest workers, Jason Maxiell and Field Williams, don't say two words between them," Huggins said. "It's not in their personality. They tried for a while. It's another thing when you've got guys who talk all the time and don't back it up."

The road ahead is loaded with challenges. Following the Houston game, the Bearcats play next Wednesday at home against South Florida (6-11) but then have to play at No. 16 Wake Forest (13-4) on Feb. 15, at UAB (13-5) on Feb. 18 and against No. 6 Louisville (16-2) at home Feb. 21.

"My job is to fix it," Huggins said, "and I'll fix it. But it's like I told them, I need some help to fix it."


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