Cincinnati has clawed to No. 5 with good defense and an uncanny toughness
With his team clinging to a 42-41 lead at halftime of last Saturday's game at Wake Forest, Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins told the Bearcats that they'd lose if their defense didn't improve in the second half. "We've got to stop them because we can't outscore them," he told his players in the locker room. An hour later, after Cincinnati had won a second-half shootout to beat the 19th-ranked Demon Deacons 103-94, Huggins may have been the most surprised person in the arena. "I didn't think we could score that many points against anybody," he said. "Our guys did what they had to do to win."
The Bearcats' record improved to 22-2 with the victory, which was by far their most impressive of the season. Facing a ranked opponent for only the second time ( Cincinnati lost to Oklahoma State in its season opener), the Bearcats had both their highest point total and field goal percentage (58.1%) of the year. "To come in here against an ACC team and win when we weren't at our best [defensively] was a big statement for us," said senior guard Steve Logan, who was excused from practice in Winston-Salem, N.C., last Thursday, so that he could fly home to Cleveland to spend time with his son, who was born the night before. Nonetheless Logan scored a game-high 30 points.
Saturday's offensive explosion notwithstanding, Cincinnati has climbed to No. 5 in the nation by virtue of its smothering defense. Through Sunday the Bearcats were leading the nation in field-goal-percentage defense (37.2%) and were ranked third in scoring defense (59.2 points a game). Their scheme is simple: They rarely press, trap or—heaven forbid—play zone. Huggins doesn't even like his players to gamble, which is why Cincinnati is ranked last in Conference USA in steals (5.1 a game). The Bearcats succeed by forcing teams as far from the basket as possible. "We don't try to trick anyone," says 6'6" junior guard Leonard Stokes. "We're taught to look at our man and think, It's just you and me, and you're not going to score."
For a program known for its toughness, Cincinnati has an ideal leader in Logan, who through Sunday was leading Conference USA in scoring, with 21.9 points a game. Logan is short—he's listed at 6 feet but is closer to 5'10"—and has little explosiveness off the dribble, but at 198 pounds, he knows how to use his strength to create space, and his shooting range extends well beyond the three-point line. Logan's scoring ability is critical, given how little offense the Bearcats get from their frontcourt players (23.4 points a game). "Some G.M. needs to draft this guy," Deacons guard Broderick Hicks said of Logan after Saturday's game. "I was in his face all game, but he made unbelievable shots."
Cincinnati's win over Wake Forest was also important for Conference USA, which had a 2-16 record in nonconference games against Top 25 teams before Saturday. Last week Memphis coach John Calipari criticized Huggins for not voting for Memphis, then 19-4, in the coaches' poll, though Huggins later claimed he had voted for the Tigers. "Tell Cal that as usual, he's got bad sources," Huggins said. In light of Memphis's 64-46 loss to UAB last Friday night, perhaps Calipari should stop worrying about the Tigers' ranking and start worrying about beating Cincinnati.
N.C. State Rebounds
Wolf pack Is Back in the Hunt
North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek is a thoughtful man who would rather expound on the Wolfpack's "character quotient" than its won-lost record. Sendek, however, understands that results do matter, especially to N.C. State fans who a year ago were calling for him to be fired during a miserable 13-16 season. Now, with the Wolfpack in fourth place in the ACC (7-4, 18-6 overall) and most likely heading for its first NCAA tournament in 11 years, Sendek's job appears safe. "It's been a difficult process, but it hasn't been without its fruit," Sendek says. "I love this team, and it's not because we've been winning. We're not getting ahead of ourselves, and we're not through with the journey yet."
Sendek's caution is understandable considering that two years ago, N.C. State got off to a 15-4 start before losing seven of its last eight regular-season games and winding up in the NIT. This Wolfpack, however, isn't likely to endure a similar spiral, even though it starts two or three freshmen a game. That's mostly because of the senior leadership in the backcourt from Anthony Grundy and Archie Miller, each of whom has overcome adversity of his own.
In January 1996 Grundy was suspended for the remainder of his junior year at Louisville's Central High because he brought a gun into school, which he says he did to protect himself from gang members who had threatened him. Grundy moved to Bowling Green, Ky., that summer, where he lived with a youth pastor for a year before enrolling at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. On the court Grundy has improved each year at N.C. State, and he's quietly putting together a season comparable with those of the ACC's other top guards, Juan Dixon of Maryland and Duke's Jason Williams. Grundy is seventh in the ACC in scoring (16.7 points a game), eighth in assists (3.7) and fourth in steals (2.4). He's also the Wolfpack's leading rebounder, with 5.6 a game.