By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Bob Huggins walked into the Fifth Third Arena media room shortly after the University of Cincinnati Bearcats allowed South Florida to score 46 second-half points on Feb. 11 and made a declaration.
"We've seen the last of the press," UC's head coach said. "You can't press with guys who won't run back on defense. We're going to have to change some things."
With that, the transformation of the Bearcats from a running, pressing team to a deliberate halfcourt team had begun. Huggins didn't just change a few things. He changed nearly everything.
UC head basketball coach Bob Huggins relaxes as he talks with Athletic Director Bob Goin after his Bearcats were selected as a fourth seed in the Atlanta Regional.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
"We just weren't getting it done with pressure," Huggins said. "We were giving up too many easy shots and our halfcourt offense wasn't very good. It was just something we had to do to win."
Associate head coach Dan Peters doesn't remember when Huggins first told him about the changes, but he remembers quite clearly how Huggins described the new approach.
"He said, 'We're going to guard the basket and make it tough for people to score over the top of us,' " Peters said. "And we're going to rebound the ball."
No. 4 seed UC (24-6) plays No. 13 seed East Tennessee State (25-7) at 3:05 p.m. Friday in Columbus in the first round of the NCAA Tournament's Atlanta Regional.
UC has won seven of its last eight games, including four straight, to win the Conference USA Tournament and claim a share of the league's regular-season championship.
Based on their success running and pressing in the early 90s, the Bearcats have long been known as a transition team, but this program has really been defined over the years by its stingy halfcourt defense and rebounding. And when things began to turn sour with losses to Louisville, Charlotte and Xavier, that's what Huggins fell back on.
"At the time, our press wasn't really working," said UC's James White. "We got kind of comfortable in it. If something's broke, you've got to fix it."
The Bearcats' strength now is halfcourt defense, one of the aspects of their game that was the most suspect even while UC was blowing away its non-league opponents in November, December and through the middle of January.
Huggins reduced his 11-man playing rotation to eight. Four games ago, he benched point guard Nick Williams in favor of Armein Kirkland and began to rely more heavily on creating favorable matchups.
The 6-8 Kirkland and the 6-7 White take turns bringing the ball up the court and starting the offense, depending on who's guarding them and what kind of matchups the Bearcats can exploit.
When Williams gets on the floor now, he plays mostly shooting guard, where he appears more comfortable.
"Teams evolve," Peters said. "A sign of a good coach is that they're adaptable and not so inflexible that they're not willing to make changes."
Huggins and his coaches believed at the start of the season that they had the depth and athleticism to press and run. It worked well in the early going, when UC forced an average of 23 turnovers in its first 13 games.
When competition improved, the number of turnovers declined.
WHALEY PRACTICES: Junior center Robert Whaley practiced with the team Monday for the first time since he left the program for personal reasons on Feb. 23.
Whaley's profile is included in UC's post-season media guide, but Huggins declined to say if Whaley would play in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're talking about getting ready for East Tennessee State," Huggins said when asked about Whaley.
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