By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The past four days have been eventful ones for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
During that time, they pulled themselves back from the brink with a win over Louisville, lost their most celebrated recruit in junior center Robert Whaley and positioned themselves to win their eighth Conference USA championship in nine years.
"We're back in decent shape where we have a chance now," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "We have to take care of our business. We have Memphis the last game of the year here, so if we can do what we're supposed to do between then and now we'll be in fine shape."
Doing what they're supposed to do includes beating Saint Louis at 8:05 p.m. today at Fifth Third Arena in their first game since Whaley left the team Monday.
It's the first of a four-step process which can assure UC at least a share of the league championship.
The 15th-ranked Bearcats (18-5 overall, 9-3 in C-USA) are tied for second place with Alabama-Birmingham and Charlotte, one game behind first-place Memphis.
Following tonight's game, they play at Charlotte on Saturday, at DePaul on March 4, then at home against Memphis on March 6 in a game that could decide the league title and the No.1 seed in the conference tournament, which will be played in Cincinnati.
But first they must deal with those irritating Billikens.
Saint Louis (14-9, 7-5) has won three in a row and leads the league in fewest points allowed (57.1), although it ranks only seventh in field goal percentage defense (40.7).
The Billikens have the ability to drive an opponent like UC crazy with their deliberate offensive approach and sticky defense.
"They're a great defensive team but they control the pace of the game with their offense," Huggins said. "They try to keep the games close and win at the end." That's exactly the strategy the Billikens will employ tonight.
"We've got to go and just battle our butts off and hope that we have a chance to win in the last minute of the game," said Saint Louis coach Brad Soderberg. "Cincinnati is scary to watch on tape. They're playing with great energy."
It's not like the UC players don't know what they're getting into. Last year, the Bearcats lost to the Billikens, 58-55, at what was then Shoemaker Center. The victory was the first for a Saint Louis team in Cincinnati since the 1981-82 season.
UC fell behind in that game, 31-18, at halftime and shot 29 percent against the Billiken defense. The Bearcats haven't forgotten how frustrating that game was.
"If Saint Louis gets the (offensive) rebound, they're going to set it back up for 35 more seconds," said UC guard Tony Bobbitt.
"You don't want to be out there for three possessions in a row, 35 seconds. Nobody likes that.
"They're not worried about catch it and shoot. They're worried about passing, passing, passing and then they'll try to get an easy bucket."
UC fans should not show up tonight expecting to see their Bearcats run up and down the court at will. It's easier to slow a game with tempo than it is to speed one up, which means it's more likely that UC will find itself in another half-court grinder like its overtime win over Louisville on Saturday. UC shot just 35 percent in that game.
"If we play a game like we played against Louisville and our shots aren't falling, Saint Louis could win like, 30-28," said UC's Field Williams.
TICKETS AVAILABLE: Five hundred tickets still remain for the Cincinnati-Saint Louis men's basketball game on Wednesday night at Fifth Third Arena. The UC Ticket Office opens at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, or fans can call 513/556-CATS, or go online (www.UCBearcats.com) .
No. 15 UC vs. Saint Louis
Tipoff: 8:05 p.m. today, Fifth Third Arena (13,176).
Records: UC (18-5 overall, 9-3 C-USA); Saint Louis (14-9, 7-5).
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
TV: WXIX-TV (Channel 19).
Series: UC leads, 56-19.
Line: UC by 12 1/2.
Coach: Bob Huggins (367-117, 15th year; 535-189 overall).
Coach: Brad Soderberg (30-23, second year; 161-96 overall).
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