By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One-fifth of a conference championship is better than no conference championship.
That's how the University of Cincinnati Bearcats have to view today's regular-season finale against Memphis. Had they not lost at DePaul on Thursday night, they would have had a chance to win outright their eighth Conference USA title in nine years.
That won't happen now, but if they beat first-place Memphis (21-5, 12-3 C-USA) at 3:30 p.m. today at Fifth Third Arena, the 13th-ranked Bearcats (20-6, 11-4) still can claim a share of the championship with 20th-ranked Memphis and as many as three other teams.
UC, 10-1 against the Tigers at Fifth Third, also need a win to receive a first-round bye in next week's conference tournament. They will claim the No. 2 seed if there's a five-way tie for first.
If that's not enough, there's the added emotion that will come with a sellout crowd saying farewell to seniors Tony Bobbitt, Field Williams and Kareem Johnson, all of whom will play their final game at home today.
And Jason Maxiell needs 10 points to become the 41st UC player to reach 1,000 career points.
"I can't guarantee a victory, but we can guarantee that guys will come out and give it their best," said Bobbitt, who conceded that he did not give it his best against DePaul, when he was held to three points and committed two costly fouls against 3-point shooters.
"My teammates know I let them down," Bobbitt said. "It's not fair to them and it's not fair to the coaches. I've got to bring the 'A' game."
But will he?
Huggins isn't so sure, not just about Bobbitt but about this team as a whole.
"This is not typical of what we've been about," Huggins said. "We do something like we did last night and nobody wanted to play us the next game. We just came out and played like crazy. I don't know about this team."
It's the second straight year Huggins has found himself wondering from game to game what kind of effort he will receive from his players, even in a game of this magnitude.
"It's the same guys," Huggins said. "The same team. You sub James White for Lenny Stokes and you sub Nick Williams for Taron Barker, and I'm not sure we got the best of those trades. That's our team. It's the same team."
Memphis, with 11 wins in its last 12 games, poses problems with its athleticism and versatility, but mostly with its point guard, Antonio Burks, Huggins' choice for conference player of the year.
"He's so fast," Williams said. "We've got to find somebody who can contain him, who can stay in front of him."
Burks averages 16.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He's second in the league in assists and first in steals with 2.5 per game.
Memphis also has one of the best freshmen in the league in 6-8 forward Sean Banks, who averages 17.7 points and 7 rebounds. And though the Tigers are a bit banged up, they have the advantage of having had two days to prepare for this game. UC didn't get back to campus until 3:30 a.m. Friday after the DePaul game.
In addition to their sellout crowd pulling for them, the Bearcats know that Charlotte, DePaul and Alabama-Birmingham, all of which have a chance to share in the title, will be rooting hard for UC.
"This is probably the first time in the history of the league that everybody will be rooting for us," Huggins said.
No. 13 UC vs. No. 20 Memphis
Tipoff: 3:30 p.m. today, Fifth Third Arena (13,176).
Records: UC 20-6 (11-4 Conference USA), Memphis 21-5 (12-3).
TV: Ch. 9.
Radio: WCKY-AM (1360).
Line: UC by 7 1/2.
Series: UC leads 34-27.
Coach: Bob Huggins (369-118, 15th season; 537-190 overall).
Coach: John Calipari (92-36, fourth season; 285-107 overall).
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