By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS - The real game doesn't take place until this afternoon, but the mind games were already in full force Saturday.
The Illinois players claimed the University of Cincinnati players were talking trash to them on Friday, even before UC's first-round win over East Tennessee State.
The Bearcats players said they had no idea what the Illini were talking about.
The Illinois players insisted they would not allow themselves to be intimidated by the Bearcats.
To which UC coach Bob Huggins replied, "Have they seen our guys? This is as small as we've been in a long time."
So it went on the day before No. 4 seed UC (25-6) takes on No. 5 seed Illinois (25-6) at 2:30 p.m. today at Nationwide Arena for the right to advance to next week's NCAA Tournament regional semifinals in Atlanta. Illinois, the Big Ten regular-season champion, has won 13 of its past 14 games.
UC has won eight of its last nine.
Whether or not UC is truly intimidating, it's clear Illinois coach Bruce Weber intends to use that image as motivation for his team.
"That's one of the big things that coach put up on the board yesterday," said Illinois forward James Augustine. "They're not going to intimidate me. I know they go out and intimidate a lot of other players, but that's some of their strategy.
"They go out and intimidate other teams and that's how they win their games. They bully them."
The Bearcats looked shocked and a little put out when they were asked about trash talking to the Illini before their game Friday.
"That's a false statement," said UC guard Tony Bobbitt. "We never said nothing to their team. We were getting excited about the game ahead of us. So if we did - if any of our teammates did say anything - we apologize."
One observer said a UC reserve merely patted an Illinois player on the behind and said, "See you, Sunday."
The trash-talking issue aside, the Bearcats make no excuses for the physical brand of basketball that has been their trademark under Huggins, even if they're not quite as good at it as they once were.
"At one time we were physically imposing," Huggins said, "when we had (Danny) Fortson and Art (Long) and all those guys. We had five or six guys that were over 250 pounds and 300-pound bench press guys, but I was just in the locker room and I didn't see one of them in there."
That doesn't mean the Bearcats won't try to play as if they still have that kind of brute force.
Even though they don't have the size up front that the Illini have with Augustine and 7-foot-2 backup center Nick Smith, they intend to attack their opponents as they have all season.
"For us, it's a physical game, 24/7," said UC forward Jason Maxiell. "Our practices are very physical, so if we come into the game and not be physical, we must be tired or something's wrong."
The Bearcats appear to have an edge in athleticism along the front line, but Illinois counters with a quick, talented backcourt in 6-foot sophomore Dee Brown, who averages 13.3 points, and 6-3 sophomore Deron Williams, who averages 13.6 points.
After the way East Tennessee State's Tim Smith sliced through the UC defense for 26 points Friday, the Bearcats are particularly concerned with Brown.
"If they don't get back," Brown said, "I'm going to be lining up and getting a few free shots."
Meanwhile, Weber appears determined to continue to hammer on the intimidation issue.
"It's important that we have that feistiness," Weber said. "They are going to be bruised up tomorrow. It's going to be a physical game. They're going to have to deal with it."
It remains to be seen whether Weber's strategy fires up his players or serves as motivation for the Bearcats.
"We're not here to intimidate nobody," Bobbitt said. "We're here to play basketball. Whatever they said about us, we're fine with it, man. We'll just come out (today) and see who's the better team."
No. 4 UC vs. No. 5 Illinois
Tipoff: 2:30 p.m. today, Nationwide Arena (19,906), Columbus.
Records: UC 25-6; Illinois 25-6.
Radio: WCKY-AM (1360).
TV: WKRC-TV (Channel 12).
Series: Tied, 1-1.
Line: UC by 1.
Coach: Bob Huggins (374-118, 15th year; 542-190 overall).
Coach: Bruce Weber (25-6, first year; 128-60).
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