By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The University of Cincinnati Bearcats were surprised by the No. 4 NCAA Tournament seed they received Sunday, but not upset.
"I thought we were a three," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "We were No. 11 in the RPI. But it's OK. We've just got to go play." The No. 3 seed in UC's bracket, which feeds into the Atlanta regional, went to Texas, with an RPI of No. 10.
UC head basketball coach Bob Huggins hugs UC Athletic Director Bob Goin. Goin dressed in an official's shirt to goad Huggins and his "quiet demeanor" during an afternoon awards program. UC President Nancy Zimpher laughs at right.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
The other No. 3 seeds were Georgia Tech (with a No. 16 RPI), Pittsburgh (No. 8) and North Carolina State (No. 17). All four of the No. 3 seeds had a better strength of schedule rating than UC's No. 23.
"It doesn't matter that much," Huggins said of UC's seed. "North Carolina State got Louisiana-Lafayette and I think they're pretty good. There's not a lot of bad teams anymore."
This will be UC's 13th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, which is tied with Kentucky for the third-longest streak in the country behind Arizona (20) and Kansas (15).
The slight disappointment about the No. 4 seed was balanced nicely by the fact that the Bearcats, 24-6, and winners of the Conference USA Tournament, have to travel only 100 miles up the road to play in Columbus.
They'll meet No. 13 seed East Tennessee State (27-5), winners of the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament championships, on Friday at Nationwide Arena. (cq)
It'll be UC's first appearance in Columbus since Dec. 10, 1921, when the Bearcats beat Ohio State, 33-17.
"It's a good situation for us," said UC center Kareem Johnson. "We get to play in Ohio. I'm fine with a four seed. It's no problem with me."
Last year the Bearcats were eliminated in the first round by Gonzaga.
"That was kind of disappointing," said UC guard Tony Bobbitt. "We worked hard this year and got a No. 4 seed. That helps us.
"Everybody on the team, their confidence is up. They're willing to help each other. Whatever it takes for us to win, that's what we're going to do."
If UC wins its first-round game, the Bearcats will face the winner of the game between No. 5 seed Illinois and No. 12 seed Murray State, which could set up a match between Huggins and former UC assistant, now Murry State coach Mick Cronin.
"That would be wonderful," Huggins said. "But I think Illinois is pretty good. They've got the No. 5 seed. They're supposed to win."
The No. 1 seed in UC's region is Duke, which the Bearcats would face in the Sweet 16 if both teams advance that far.
"I think Duke's second-round game will be hard," Huggins said. "I think Arizona is a hard matchup. They're extremely athletic and when they make shots they can beat anybody in the country."
Huggins will run into an old friend in East Tennessee State coach Murry Bartow, who coached at Alabama-Birmingham from 1996-2002. Huggins is 8-0 vs. Bartow. But Huggins is 0-1 vs. East Tennessee State, having lost to the Bucs, 90-79, at Shoemaker Center in 1990.
Bartow, who used a deliberate approach at UAB, now coaches a team that presses and runs behind 5-9 sophomore point guard Tim Smith.
"He's like any good coach," said UC assistant coach Andy Kennedy, who worked as an assistant for Bartow at UAB for five years.
"You make changes based on your personnel. He inherited a team with one of the fastest point guards in the country. They're very athletic and they've had a great deal of success by playing fast and speeding up the game."
Kennedy compared Smith to Memphis point guard Antonio Burks, the player of the year in Conference USA.
"When you've got a guy that fast with the basketball," Kennedy said, "it makes sense to try to speed up the basketball."
East Tennessee State, a No. 15 seed last year, nearly upset Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament, losing to the Demon Deacons, 76-73.
"They couldn't keep (Smith) from getting the ball to the basket," Huggins said.
UC will enter the tournament having won four games in a row and seven of its last eight.
UC's road to the title
(Matchups assume higher-seeded team advances)
East Tennessee State (27-5): The Bearcats have only lost twice in the first round in 12 NCAA appearances under Bob Huggins (1994, 2003), and they were a No. 8 seed both times. Draw your own conclusions.
Illinois (24-6): The Illini would surely provide a nice matchup with the Bearcats. But don't we all want to see Murray State and coach Mick Cronin upset Illinois and play against UC, where Cronin was an assistant coach under Huggins? Of course we do.
Duke (27-5): The last time these teams met, UC knocked off the then-No. 1 Blue Devils on Melvin Levett's dunk with one second left in the 1998 Great Alaska Shootout final.
Mississippi State (25-3): This would be a nice chance for UC to avenge a 1996 Elite Eight loss to the Bulldogs.
Stanford (29-1): UC last faced the Cardinal in the 2001 Sweet 16 - and lost 78-65.
Kentucky (26-4): We can at least dream about it, can't we?
Also in Columbus
Illinois vs. Murray State
No. 5 seed Fighting Illini (24-6): Lost to Wisconsin 70-53 in Big Ten Tourney final. Before that, won 12 consecutive games to finish 13-3 and win league's regular-season title. Coach Bruce Weber is in his first year at Illinois after five years at Southern Illinois. This is his third straight NCAA appearance.
No. 12 seed Murray State (28-5): This is the Racers' best seed since 1997 (No. 9) and their sixth NCAA appearance in 10 years. Their only NCAA Tournament victory came in 1988 when they upset North Carolina State. La Salle High School graduate Mick Cronin, a former assistant to Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino, is in his first year as a college head coach. His team won the Ohio Valley Conference and has won eight straight games.
Tickets through Nationwide Arena are sold out.
UK's school allotment of tickets is gone.
UC's school allotment of tickets: Information not available until today ($50 per session/$150 all sessions).
Junior forward Jason Maxiell, who leads the University of Cincinnati in scoring and rebounding, was named the team's Most Valuable Player on Sunday.
Other award winners: Best Free Throw Percentage - Field Williams; Assists Leader - James White; Best Rebounder - Maxiell; Best Defensive Player - White; Most Improved Player - Tony Bobbitt; Oscar Robertston Award (for dedication) - Field Williams; Ball of Courage Award (hustle) - Kareem Johnson.
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