- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

Coach Mike Lonergan and the Catholic University basketball team are again defying the customary doubts in their midst.

The Cardinals have an 18-1 record and the top spot in the Capital Athletic Conference. They are ranked No.1 in two of the three Division III national polls. They are in position to make another compelling run in the 48-team NCAA tournament, despite a roster filled with underclassmen and a freshman handling the point guard duties.

The Cardinals lost three starting players from their national championship team last season. They lost their bench. They seemingly lost the sense of specialness that resulted in the program's first national title in 90 seasons.

"I thought if things went well this season, we'd be maybe 14-5 at this point, at best," Lonergan says. "I think what I have found with our team and the teams out there is, it's kind of like the Eastern Conference in the NBA, where there is no dominant team. I don't think we have the talent we had last season, although defensively we probably are a little better."

The Cardinals are holding opponents to a field goal percentage of 37.4 and just 29.9 percent from 3-point territory. This is compared to their 46.5 field goal mark and 38.9 efficiency from beyond the 3-point arc.

The team's defense begins with Bobby Henning, the freshman point guard from Bricktown, N.J., who looks as if he belongs in junior high school. Henning is the quintessential pest, a 5-foot-7, 130-pound bundle of disruptiveness who forces opponents out of their offensive sets and comfort level.

"If he weren't so darn small, he would have gotten a Division I scholarship," Lonergan says.

Henning is not the shooter or scorer Pat Maloney was. Maloney had shooting range out to the DuFour Center parking lot, but Henning only looks to shoot as a last resort. It is his ability to distribute the ball that has allowed the Cardinals to maintain their national aspirations. Henning is averaging 6.1 assists against 2.8 turnovers.

Matt Hilleary, a 6-6 junior forward from Manassas who is coming off his ninth double-double of the season, has emerged as the team's best player. An active shot-blocker, Hilleary is averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds.

The Cardinals just don't beat you with defense. They beat you with scoring balance, with four players averaging in double figures: Hilleary, Kevin Wise, Craig Avallone and Will Morley. They beat you on the glass. They beat you with good shooting. They beat you because of the last four seasons: the Sweet 16 appearances in 1998 and 1999, the Elite Eight finish two seasons ago and the national title last season.

The Cardinals believe they are entitled to win, as they have done 18 games in a row. Their only loss was in the first game of the season, to William Paterson 71-68 in Wayne, N.J., in a rematch of the national championship game last season.

The Cardinals have five games left in the regular season, three on the road, before the CAC tournament begins Feb. 19. Lonergan is not inclined to look too far ahead. He is a coach, after all, a worrier by definition. Who knows what torment is lurking out there? Are you kidding? It could all end with a bad stretch or an injury or a freshman who pinches himself one day and realizes the season is becoming awfully serious.

Yet the possibilities remain fascinating, within reach, and Lonergan assumes the Cardinals, as defending national champions, are likely to receive the benefit of any doubt from the selection committee. In this scenario, the Cardinals earn a bye in the first round of the NCAA tournament and the right to host a second-round game, if not the following two rounds of the Northeast sectional.

"That would be three games at home and three wins away from going back to the Final Four," Lonergan says. "Unlike our team last season, because we are young, I don't know if we're good enough to win four tournament games on the road."

The evidence so far suggests it won't be necessary for the Cardinals to win four tournament games on the road to return to Salem, Va.

That won't stop Lonergan from watching game tape late at night and imagining everything that could go wrong.

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