March 16, 2002
By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - It's the game UCLA always seems to win, the game Cincinnati always seems to lose. It's the game Pitt almost never plays - and it's in the place Cal almost certainly didn't want to be.
Cincinnati, seeded No. 1 in the NCAA West Regional, tries to put aside its history of second-round failures Sunday against UCLA - the team synonymous with March Madness - in an intriguing matchup of tradition and trends.
Pitt's basketball tradition predates these Panthers, with the school more than a quarter-century removed from its last trip to an NCAA regional. But the Panthers finally can return to the round of 16 without leaving town, a home-court disadvantage for California in a cross-country South Regional second-round game.
"Nobody wants to play a host school, it's certainly not your No. 1 pick," Cal coach Ben Braun said Saturday. "I know Pittsburgh's pretty happy about playing here."
Not as happy as Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins will be, however, if Mellon Arena proves to be another venue where the Bearcats (31-3) get past their second-round stumbling block.
Cincinnati has been seeded at least third all but once since 1997, yet advanced to the regional semifinals only once: last season. In 1997, '98, '99 and '00, the Bearcats were eliminated in the second round.
Getting past UCLA (20-11) will be a significant challenge, however, especially with the Bruins on another of their March upswings. After losing four of six, the Bruins blew out Mississippi 80-58 Friday, putting them into position to advance to the regionals for the fifth time in six years under coach Steve Lavin.
"I think they're the most talented team we've faced all year," said Cincinnati All-American Steve Logan, who had 27 points Friday in a 90-52 rout of out-of-its-league Boston University.
Or are the Bruins the two best teams Cincinnati has faced?
Lavin successfully deployed two five-man units against Mississippi, one a freshman-dominated squad that outscored the starters 42-38. Freshman Dijon Thompson's 16 points complemented Billy Knight's 21.
"In practice, that group beats up on the first team a lot and has real good chemistry, and that's why coach wants them to play as a group," Knight said.
Of course, it might take two separate units to slow Logan, who averages 22 points.
Fun fact: Cincinnati and UCLA haven't met in 36 years and last played in the NCAA tournament in a 1962 national semifinal won by eventual champion Cincinnati.
The Huggins family, however, has an NCAA history with UCLA. In 1980, Huggins' older brother, Larry, dribbled the ball off his foot late in Ohio State's 72-68 regional loss to UCLA.
Pitt must go back further than that, 28 years, to find its last team that reached a regional, and 52 years to the last team that played California. But the Panthers (28-5), winners of 10 of 11 and 13 of 15, face a difficult matchup against Cal (23-8) despite their hometown edge, and not just because the Golden Bears are one of the few teams that plays defense as well as they do.
Cal's two 6-foot-5 swingmen, Joe Shipp (20 points) and Brian Wethers (19 points), had big games in an 82-75 victory Friday over Penn. They'll likely occupy Pitt's two best defenders, 6-3 Julius Page and 6-4 Jaron Brown.
"Their two wings are so physical and so big, both of them look like Mitch Richmond," Pitt coach Ben Howland said.
But Brown also must help out against Cal's two 6-11 down-low players, Solomon Hughes and Jamal Simpson, who tower over Pitt's best inside defender, 6-6 junior Ontario Lett. That means 6-10 center Toree Morris, whose playing time has decreased appreciably, might play significant minutes.
"But we've faced shot blockers before, some of the best in the country," Brandin Knight said.
Knight, a third-team All-American, offers Pitt's biggest advantage, a smart, instinctive player who can take over a game from the backcourt. If he can do so again, Cal might have to switch to a smaller, quicker lineup, thereby negating its size advantage.