Sunday, March 21, 2004

With no guards, UC has no chance

Tournament again exposing Bearcats' ongoing weakness at position

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If only they had a slash-and-burn point guard. If only Bob Huggins could add a sprinter to all those shot-putters. UC basketball has been dominated and defined by hardbodies. "My backup power forward has played six years in the NFL," Huggins stated with pleasure Saturday, a reference to Rod Monroe. If only Huggins could bring in a Ferrari to pull all those Clydesdales.

Wondering why the Bearcats flame out in the NCAA Tournament is a March preoccupation around here. Pick your reason: Their schedule is weak, their conference is weak, Huggins wears them down, they've been unlucky. Here's my favorite:

The Bearcats don't advance in the Tournament because their guards aren't good enough at making their teammates better.

We saw on Friday what the Bearcats have lacked since Nick Van Exel. There's a chance we'll see it again today. Can you imagine how good Cincinnati would be if it had someone like Tim Smith waterbugging his way around a defense? Eric Hicks and Jason Maxiell would take no shot longer than a dunk.

Smith nearly carried East Tennessee State into the second round by himself. He's 5-feet-8. Maxiell has more muscle in one thigh than Smith has acquired his whole life.

Today, UC plays Illinois. Murray State coach Mick Cronin said the Illini's starting guards, Deron Williams and Dee Brown, "will be playing in the NBA."

Brown is a bigger, slightly less quick version of Smith. He's the sort of player UC has been lacking for a decade.

To win in March, you have to be able to score. To score, you need guards who can open holes in the defense, spread the floor and make their teammates better. Smith did that, eloquently, Friday night.

As Cronin put it, "If you've got a great guard that can get other people some shots, it makes the game so much easier on your four other guys."

Tony Bennett, a Washington State assistant coach, formerly a drive-and-dish master at Wisconsin-Green Bay, told the Los Angeles Times, "The game has gone to the smaller guy who can wheel and deal and make plays. You'd rather take a guy who's a couple inches smaller who can play than a guy who looks good."

While UC has done a terrific job at maintaining its tough-guy image - the media peppered Huggins Saturday with questions about his team's "intimidation factor" - it hasn't found enough playmaking guards to run deeply into March.

Huggins has preferred his studs be bigger and stronger, rather than sleeker and quicker. That approach works better across the grind of a regular season than in the one-and-done mode of March.

UC's best guards have been muscular scorers: LaZelle Durden, Darnell Burton, Damon Flint, Mel Levett, Steve Logan. Even Kenny Satterfield, who was signed to play point, was more interested in scoring and catching the NBA's eye than in making his teammates better. UC's last true point guard was current assistant coach Keith LeGree, who took good care of the ball but wasn't a creator.

James White and Armein Kirkland might pose interesting matchup questions for opponents. Neither is a point guard. "James is filling the role," LeGree said. "I don't think he's trying to be a point guard. He's a three (small forward). He's trying to improvise."

All the teams we associate with March had great guard play. Most recently, Duke had Jason Williams, Maryland had Juan Dixon and Steve Blake. Gerry McNamara made Carmelo Anthony better for Syracuse last year. McNamara scored 43 points in Syracuse's Tournament opener Thursday.

Mateen Cleaves, Mike Bibby, Bobby Hurley then.

Jameer Nelson, Chris Paul, John Lucas III and Dee Brown now.

"I'm hoping our guards will really run and make them defend us all over the court," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Saturday. No kidding. When you have slash-and-burn players like he has, you can talk that way. And you'll always have a chance in March.



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Fantasy BB: Lesser-known players make for key picks
Astros court postseason success
Molitor not intimidated with tasks as hitting coach
Relieving is Riske's business

Illini view Bearcats as bullies
Daugherty: With no guards, UC has no chance
Huggins doesn't use Tourney failures to motivate his team
Johnson's comeback miracle in the making
XU seeks new 2nd-round tune
Matta looks for more from Muskie rookies
Fired-up Blazers ready to put heat on Kentucky
Air back in sails of Redick, Blue Devils
Defending champs nearly lose grip
Demon Deacons, frosh Paul hold off upstart Manhattan
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Connecticut coach departs game early
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Wilmington wills its way to first title
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NCAA women's tournament at a glance

Sinister G's Lane's End victory muddles Derby

XU grad finds place at the table
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A quick chat with ... Julie Isphording
Bolten, Hewitt headed to NCAAs
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All thumbs
This week's poll question

Sports digest
Sports today on TV, radio

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vs. South Florida (3-4)
• 1:00 p.m. Sat. Nov. 20
• Nippert Stadium
• Radio: WLW-AM 700


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