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There are many ways to play against the University of Cincinnati basketball team, but the best way to play it would appear to be next season. All good students of the game know you do not run on the Bearcats, because they laugh if you try it and steal your passes; nor do you pressure Cincinnati, because the Cincinnati press sticks three ways faster, including under water; and you do not play slow and careful against Cincinnati, because this is Cincinnati's specialty and what is the use of being the first basketball team ever held scoreless? Neither do you try to stop their star player, because Cincinnati doesn't have one. It has five, and they are good enough to win a third straight national championship for Coach Ed Jucker.
This would be, of course, unprecedented. The odds against a team winning the NCAA championship three years in a row are massive. As the tournament began this weekend, however, who was to say the Bearcats were not equal to the odds, whatever they were? Not even Wichita Coach Ralph Miller, whose team has been the only one to defeat Cincinnati in two games over a two-year period, would suggest they can be beaten. "Excellent," he says of the Bearcats' chances. They are sublime, he says; the "strongest," the "best," with plenty of "poise, experience, defense and offense,' and furthermore, "they have a willing spirit." He says no thank you, sir, but he could not at this time reveal the special concomitants of his team's 65—64 upset of the Bearcats in mid-February, possibly because a coach would be a fool to share such a good thing and possibly because secret stratagems for beating Cincinnati have been losing for years.
When you talk of Cincinnati you talk in superlatives: Tony (Gramps) Yates is the best defensive player in the country, Tom (Cobra) Thacker is the tallest 6-foot 2-inch man in the world, Center George Wilson has the sharpest elbows. The Bearcats lead the nation's colleges in total defense. They exasperate paying customers—in arenas other than Cincinnati's—with their canny stalls, their deliberations, their icy disdain—tactics that have led them to 79 wins in their last 85 games. The prospects of continuous success even led the brothers of Cincinnati's Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity to start a frat house graveyard for the fallen, where the students play taps as the wooden markers are hammered into the ground—"Rest In Peace, Tulsa, Jan. 12, 1963, 67-57," etc. Cemetery space is now at a premium. It is, by some estimates, a depressing sight. Coach Jucker summed up his own team best. "I'm sorry," he said to St. Louis Athletic Director Bob Stewart after last month's 70-40 rout of the well-regarded Billikens. "I'm sorry we had to be so good."
There are three changes in the Cincinnati cast from last year, but only one new face among the starters, Larry Shingleton at guard. In place of the graduated Paul Hogue, the monolithic 6-foot-9 center. Forward George Wilson (6 feet 8 and bony) was moved to center and Thacker from guard to forward. Thacker, 6 feet 2 and 170 pounds, is the nearest thing to an indispensable Bearcat. When he fouled out against Wichita. Cincinnati blew a six-point lead and the game. He is the key man in the Cincinnati deep freeze, he has fine quick hands and he leaps like a porpoise. Center Wilson lacks Hogue's brute strength under the basket, but is more agile and much faster. Forward Ron Bonham (6 feet 5) is the least of Coach Jucker's defensive players—though he is plenty good enough—and he is clearly the best shot Cincinnati has had since Oscar Robertson. He averages 20.7 points a game and hits 91% at the foul line. Yates, 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds, quarterbacks the offense and though he shoots sparingly he guards up a storm. The 5-foot-10 Shingleton, meanwhile, would rather eat sawdust than take a shot. But, watch it: Bradley didn't even assign a man to Shingleton at the start of their game in Cincinnati, so he hit seven of 11 shots—reluctantly, of course.
Talk of Cincinnati's weaknesses is often vague and wistful and runs to criticism of its bench strength. The fact is that if Cincinnati's bench is inferior (as most benches are), it matters less with them than with many teams because: 1) the take-it-slow and do-it-right style of play lessens fatigue and 2) the Bearcats rarely get into foul trouble. They draw fewer fouls (13.1 a game) than any team in the country except Providence.
Nevertheless, nit-picking types can manage to find things about the Bearcats that warrant a little concern. Their rebounding, without 235 pounds of Paul Hogue, is not as overpowering, and the team is not as tall. It is not a great shooting team, so it has to work the ball in to score. It has a distressing habit, newly acquired, of getting behind early in games. Last week, Xavier had it down 25-15. Before that, Tulsa was 13-0 at the start and with eight minutes to play still led by 11. There have been other cases. "When a team repeatedly falls behind, and when this is a radical departure from what has gone before." says one rival Missouri Valley coach, "you have to figure some element is missing—maybe timing, maybe morale—who knows?"
The early NCAA road for Cincy is hardly perilous. It should have no difficulty advancing past the Texas-Texas Western winner in the Midwest regionals. Western, which has beaten Texas once already, plays much in the style of Cincinnati ( Coach Don Haskins calls his a "walking offense"), but is a slow team afoot and its best player, Jim Barnes, has a proclivity to foul. This sets up Cincinnati for a quarter-final game against the Big Eight champion, as yet undecided, but likely to be Kansas State. State is one team that does have a bench. Twelve men appeared in at least half the Wildcats' games. They have closed fast after an abysmal start and should handle either Colorado State or Oklahoma City, for all those teams' recent successes. The prospect then is a repeat of State's 75-61 loss to Cincinnati earlier in the year, unless State's big and usually mild center, Roger Sutner, suddenly runs wild.
Arizona State, in a draw no tougher than Cincinnati's, has the best chance to get to Louisville for a semifinal game against the Bearcats. This would entail beating a good Utah State team, then the Big Six champion ( Stanford or UCLA, both of which have had a rugged conference season that has left them more pressed than impressive) and finally the best in the other bracket, very likely the winner of the tossup game between Seattle and Oregon State. Neither of those two teams has looked sharp enough to cope with ASU.
Arizona State's coach, Ned Wulk, says his team is "a group of gracious young men. They don't like to get too far ahead. The thing that scares me most isa 14-point lead." True, ASU blows leads, but it also snatches them back again. Instead of using their customary fast break, the Sun Devils have turned to set play patterns this season, getting the ball to Joe Caldwell, a tine fall-away shooter, and 6-foot-8 Art Becker who. despite his size, is more effective outside. Gary Senitza is an aggressive, almost surly playmaker, but generally the Sun Devils have lacked the killer instinct. More serious, they make too many ball handling errors. Cincinnati delights in taking advantage of that kind of foolishness, and most likely would.
The team that has the best prospect of beating Cincinnati—Duke—must survive a battle in the East. There are, by minimum count, four good teams that could beat the Blue Devils to the finals: West Virginia, Ohio State (if State can win the Big Ten championship and get into the tournament at all), Loyola of Chicago and Mississippi State. Mississippi State has won outright or shared (with Kentucky in 1962) the Southeastern Conference championship three years in a row, but its splendid qualifications and Coach Babe McCarthy's frequent pleas never got the team into the NCAA tournament because of a Mississippi policy prohibiting athletic competition against Negroes.