Howe on the Hawkeyes

Media members like Digger Phelps tabbed Iowa as one of their upset specials when the NCAA Tournament tipped off Thursday. Other journalists focused on the homecoming of Hawkeye Coach Steve Alford. It might have proved to be the perfect formula for overlooked Cincinnati, who dominated in a 76-64 victory.

Sometimes fans get all wrapped up in the story line surrounding their team that it blurs the big picture. They overlook the circumstances swirling around the opponent.

It all made sense for many Iowa fans. They would be cheering for the hungrier team when it faced Cincinnati in Thursday's opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes' season hung from a thread just several short weeks ago, but they mustered the heart to overcome long odds.

Still, "media" talking heads questioned the legitimacy of their inclusion in the Field of 65. The boys from Iowa City were poised to continue their march to silence the critics.

As many Iowa fans fell in love with their team's underdog story, they missed the tale being told along the Ohio River. The Bearcats were receiving more bad reviews that Gigli.

Cincinnati issued a lackluster challenge to Louisville for the Conference USA regular season title. It then bowed of the out of the league tournament quarterfinals with a mortifying 80-68 loss to 11th-seeded South Florida.

A reporter asked sometimes volatile Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins on Wednesday why Cincinnati struggled against teams in this year's NCAA. Huggins calmly disagreed with the assertion despite his team having a 3-4 record against those schools.

Upset-minded Iowa grabbed most of the headlines away from the Bearcats leading up to the contest. Papers from Washington D.C. to Chicago and westward told the story of Hawkeye coach Steve Alford coming home to Indiana.

Somebody forgot to tell Cincinnati they were being left for dead. ESPN statue Digger Phelps picked Iowa to pull off the upset, dismissing the Bearcats as a team ripe for scrap heap.

Think about how all of this must have played in the Cincinnati locker room. Their motivational fire was being stoked continuously.

It looked the Hawkeyes never saw it coming at the outset of Thursday's game. Cincinnati employed a smothering defense to build an 18-point lead before everybody at settled into their seats at the RCA Dome. The Bearcats eventually won, 76-64.

Iowa missed 13 of its first 14 field goal attempts and had a deuce in their side of the ledger for what seemed like forever. It had one basket and three free throws in the first 11 minutes. Didn't we hear that the Bearcats would have trouble shooting in the cavernous venue?

The Hawkeyes looked a lot like the team that struggled for much of the Big Ten season. They played unintelligent basketball and most of their players lacked hustle that had carried them to five victories in the six games leading up to the event.

During the early Bearcat flurry, Iowa turned the ball over at an alarming rate, looked uninspired to crash the defensive boards and took the ball to the basket like Bambi - the deer, not the exotic dancer.

Give Cincinnati credit for defending its goal with vigor. It ranked No. 1 in the country in field goal percentage defense (37.1) and second in blocks (6.9). Perhaps the Hawkeyes missed that memo.

"They pressured us very hard, but it's no more pressure than we see out of Illinois and some of the other teams that we play in the Big Ten," Alford said. "We've played against teams this athletic. Cincinnati played well against us, and I didn't think this was one of our better games."

The Bearcats covered the passing lanes magnificently and got right up into the Iowa jerseys without much resistance. I'm still waiting for one of the Hawkeyes to run a backdoor cut or try a pick and roll.

Iowa finally showed a sense of urgency to start the second half. It sliced its deficit to just three points. But then, brain freezing returned.

"We got off to a very slow start," Alford said. "We got it back to three points with the ball and then really took a bad three. And then, all of a sudden, they go on a run after that."

Agreed. But let's not lay this all at the feet of Greg Brunner, who chose the ill-advised 3-point attempt in hopes of tying the game. Terrible defense allowed Cincinnati to reel off the next 12 points.

Iowa failed to communicate as Nick Williams inserted a pair of daggers from behind the 3-point arc. Either fight over the screen or switch, but doing neither demonstrated amnesia from basketball basics.

The Hawkeyes never really threatened Cincinnati's lead again. A Horner trey cut it to 10 points before another six-minute scoring drought by Iowa.

With the game seemingly secured by the Bearcats, CBS analyst Jay Bilas told the viewers how much the loss of Pierre Pierce hurt Iowa. It probably fell on a lot of deaf ears in the Hawkeye State and Ohio. It just didn't wash as a reason or excuse for Iowa's play Thursday. The team had put behind it the situation with their former leading scorer.

Nope. This turned out to be a case where the opposition had just as much, if not more, to prove than the Hawkeyes did. And Cincinnati performed like a team that had been left for dead. Sound familiar Iowa fans?

The Hawkeye players and coaches were frustrated by their performance. While Brunner and Jeff Horner fought hard, the role players that effectively complemented the stars at the Big Ten Tournament reverted to their play from right after Pierce's dismissal.

So, was it nerves for a group of guys dancing for the first time in the NCAAs? Did Cincinnati impose its will?

"It was just a little bit of everything," Brunner said. "We didn't execute at all, and that was our game plan. If we would have executed, I think it would have been a different outcome.

"We just didn't make shots. They just took us out of our game. We started playing their type of basketball. That's something you can't do. They're just deadly when you start doing that."

Maybe Cincinnati just held the edge because Nick Lachey was on its side. More likely, it fed off the doubters.

"(People) are going to say what they want to say," Bearcat Senior John Meeker said. "But once the game gets going, it's all about basketball."

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