- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

The Big East’s old guard has rolled the red carpet right over the league’s new members.

Two years ago, when the ACC-raided Big East decided to reload its ranks and boost its hoops profile by looting Conference USA, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida jumped at the chance to join the Northeast-based leviathan. But as that quintet nears the midpoint of its first season of Big East play, at least four of the five must feel like they’ve been jumped.

“Every time you turn around, there’s another tradition-rich program waiting to pop you in the mouth,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said earlier this week. “I think that’s been an adjustment for all of us, because there are no breathers in the Big East.”

Crean’s Golden Eagles (15-5, 5-2 Big East) are the lone success story thus far among the league’s first-year members. The other four newbies are all below .500 against the league’s old guard teams and have a combined conference record of just 6-19 (.240).

And if South Florida (6-13, 0-6) and DePaul (8-10, 1-6) were expected to struggle, almost nobody predicted traumatic transitions for Cincinnati (14-6, 3-3) and Louisville (14-5, 2-4), both of whom exited the first week of conference play with national rankings.

Much of Louisville’s slow start can been blamed on an injury to senior point man and All-America candidate Taquan Dean, the lone contributing upperclassmen on a squad populated by talented but inexperienced young players. After missing the bulk of the team’s previous five games with a severe ankle sprain, Dean returned to the starting lineup Wednesday night and helped Louisville snap a three-game skid with a 67-50 pounding of the Bearcats at Freedom Hall.

Cincinnati, which comes to MCI Center today for a noon tip against No. 21 Georgetown (13-4, 4-2), also has absorbed a key injury, losing versatile senior swingman Armein Kirkland to a season-ending ACL injury Jan.9. But with five other upperclassmen in their six-man rotation, the Bearcats can’t simply use the Kirkland injury to justify a slide that includes four losses in their last five games.

The Bearcats feature one of the league’s top post players in undersized warrior Eric Hicks (14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds), a 6-foot-6, 252-pounder who surprisingly leads the conference in blocked shots (3.45). Senior swingman James White (16.8 points), a Kensington native and Florida transfer, likely would rank second behind only Connecticut’s Rudy Gay on a list of the league’s most athletic players. And point man Devan Downey (13.4 points, 4.1 assists) leads the Big East in steals (2.35) and is locked in a two-man battle with Marquette’s Dominic James for Rookie of the Year honors.

Translation: There’s nothing pedestrian about the Bearcats’ personnel. It’s true that they don’t shoot the ball particularly well from long range, ranking 13th among the Big East’s 16 teams in 3-point shooting (.326). But perimeter marksmanship has never been a Cincinnati trademark.

The problem with the Bearcats is the lack of defensive dominance, which was the trademark of the Bob Huggins era and seems to be waning under first-year coach Andy Kennedy.

The Bearcats are 15th in the league in rebounding margin (-2.6) and 13th in the league in 3-point percentage defense (34.5). Last season under Huggins, the Bearcats ranked second in the nation in field goal percentage defense (33.7) and boasted a rebounding margin of +4.5.

“Right now, I’m sitting here struggling for answers,” Kennedy said after watching his team get routed at Freedom Hall. “Our approach to the game [at Louisville] was most concerning to me. Louisville came in saying it was a do-or-die game, and they played like it. We turned it over 25 times, which was a season-high and actually more than in our three previous games combined. We shot it abysmally. We didn’t defend the way we can. And we didn’t match their intensity nor their focus on either end.”

Kennedy, a longtime Huggins assistant, stepped into an awkward situation last August when university president Nancy Zimpher forced Huggins out after the longtime coaching renegade was charged with a DUI. If lousy graduation rates and squads populated with JUCO imports were Huggins’ hallmarks, so was outrageous success. In 16 years under the black-clad volcano the Bearcats were 399-127, earning NCAA tournament invites in each of the past 14 seasons — third among active streaks behind only Arizona (21) and Kansas (17). That run of excellence could be in jeopardy if the Bearcats continue on their current course.

“I think when it’s all said and done, our strength-of-schedule in the RPI will be No. 2 in the nation behind only Duke,” said Kennedy, whose team currently stands at No. 4 in that category. “Eight of our last 10 are against ranked teams, so if we can put together a decent finish, I think we’ll be all right.”

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