No. 13 Cincinnati awaits Buccaneers

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   When the NCAA Selection Committee revealed the 13th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats as their first round opponent for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers had a sense of confidence about them.
   After all, ETSU head coach Murry Bartow coached against Bob Huggins' group, and this Bucs team has been to the dance before. However, this squad is serious and ready to work.
   Friday afternoon's game at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio sees the 13th-seeded Southern Conference champs meet the fourth-seeded Conference USA Champion in what has the potential to be a Cinderella waiting to happen.
   Bartow is excited about the opportunity to coach against Huggins for the first time since he left the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
   "It's a hard game. Obviously, I know Cincinnati well and played them many times," Bartow said. "Bob's a great coach and they are a very physical team. Jason Maxiell is a fantastic player inside.
   "The thing you get with Cincinnati is the reflection of Bob Huggins. That's a very physical, tough, aggressive type team and they will be hard to play," he said. "We'll have a great respect for Cincinnati, but I know we have a very confident team."
   The Bearcats, also ranked 12th in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll, enter with a 24-6 record after topping DePaul 55-50 in a nailbiter for their seventh Conference USA tournament title under Huggins.
   Bartow watched Cincinnati practice last season with his former UAB assistant Andy Kennedy on the staff.
   "My link there is Andy Kennedy. He played at UAB for my dad and worked with me as one of my assistants," the Bucs coach said. "Now he's one of Bob's assistants. Andy and I still talk all of the time."
   Cincinnati is almost a regular in the big dance, making the elite eight three times under their current coach. They are a team that's always ranked, but matches up well for East Tennessee State.
   The smallest guy on the Bearcats squad is 6-1, while the biggest guy is only 6-8. It works out well for East Tennessee State, whose biggest guy is 6-9 sophomore post Brad Nuckles.
   "It's a good draw," said ETSU point guard Tim Smith, who averaged 17.4 points per game this season. "We've got to come out and play hard. We can't look at the name Cincinnati and let it get us down because of all they have done. It don't mean we can't win."
   Cincinnati is strong inside with 6-7 junior forward Jason Maxiell, who averages six boards and 13.7 points per game. They also have a strong duo of senior guards in Tony Bobbitt and Fields Williams, who average 13.3 and 11.5 points, respectively.
   "I think we can (beat them)," added Smith. "We were there last year and we have chemistry and know how to win. It's going to be up and down. We just have to defend well."
   Several of the Buccaneer fans were hoping for the closer Raleigh draw, but got the second-closest slot in Columbus, which is only a seven-hour drive away.
   "I'm real excited. I couldn't ask for much more," said senior post Zakee Wadood. "When I saw them come up as a four, I knew we could be up. When it was us, my face just lit up. It's a good opportunity to get another win and get the respect we deserve."
   Like Jerald Fields' chance last year, sophomore forward Ben Rhoda will get a chance to play close to his home turf. Rhoda hails from Dayton, Ohio, which is only an hour away from Columbus.
   "I'm excited," said Rhoda. "I knew it was a location all week, but it's exciting to get to go home so all the people that saw you can see you again."
   Inside, the Bucs were hoping for a higher seed, but they can't be too disappointed.
   "I thought we would get a higher seed after seeing some of the other seeds, but that's the way it goes," said senior post Jerald Fields. "We've got to go in there head first and ready to play. They have a very athletic team and we do too. Hopefully, we can get out there and get this win."
   The Buccaneers will have to rely on their experience.
   Both Bartow and the team have been in the situation before and the coach believes that will help this week.
   "That experience has got to help. It doesn't mean we will win, but I think the experience of being there and the fact that they've played well, and been on that stage will help," Bartow said.
   One thing the Bearcats have going in their favor is the crowd, which is sure to be very pro-Cincinnati.
   "It'll be a very pro-Cincinnati crowd in Columbus and they have a lot of support. They will travel a lot of people and I think we will too," Bartow said.
   There will be another opportunity for the Bucs fans to show support to the squad, as they will hold a pep rally at 10:30 a.m. today in front of Brooks Gymnasium on the ETSU campus.
   In case of inclement weather, the event will be held indoors.