When the Cincinnati Bearcats made their surprising run at the Final Four last year, they did it with a deep bench and a solid defense that simply smothered opponents.
"We had so many bodies last year that we just wore people down," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said yesterday. "This year is different -- we haven't been able to bury people and put people away."
All that means for No. 7 Cincinnati is achieving the same results by slightly different means. The Bearcats, Coppin State's opponent Friday in an East Regional first-round game, enter the NCAA tournament with a 24-4 record and are confident of making another good showing.
As usual with Cincinnati, defense will be the key.
"What we try to do [defensively] is to make an opponent feel uncertain," said Cincinnati forward Terry Nelson, one of five senior starters. "If we can do that -- and make some shots -- we can go pretty far."
With a swarming defense that traps the ball-handler at every opportunity, the Bearcats have made opponents feel uncertain all season. Their 56.9 points allowed per game ranks third in Division I, and their field-goal percentage defense (40.5) ranks ninth.
That defense helped Cincinnati finish with a 7-3 record this season in games against NCAA tournament teams, with wins over Massachusetts, Temple, Xavier, Memphis State (twice) and Marquette (twice).
Six times this season, Cincinnati has held an opponent to 50 or fewer points, and only three times this season has a team scored 70 or more. Two of those games -- against Indiana and Arizona -- were losses.
"Defense is everything for us," Huggins said. "The pressure we put on the basketball makes if difficult to deliver the ball into the paint."
Don't let the Cincinnati defense take away from the offensive talents of 6-foot-1 guard Nick Van Exel. Although he averages just 11.8 points, Van Exel is a good three-point shooter (35.3 percent) who has the ability to take over games.
"Nick Van Exel has had a great year for us," Huggins said of his guard, whose 12.3-point average last year rose to 15.3 in the NCAA tournament. "He has improved tremendously."
Coppin will be a mystery team for Cincinnati, which won the regular-season and tournament championship of the six-team Great Midwest Conference.
Huggins came away impressed with Coppin based on the tape he saw of the Eagles.
"They're athletic, they're patient and they're well coached," Huggins said of Coppin. "They have patience and their shot selection is outstanding. We haven't had the opportunity to see them play. But they've been to the tournament before and they've done well in their conference."
And Huggins' team has been to the tournament before and has done well, losing to Michigan in last year's semifinals.
"Our guys have been here before and they want to win," Huggins said. "They play with a lot of heart and determination and they do whatever it takes to win."