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Vanderbilt goes North to Cincinnati

The Vanderbilt Commodores (3-4) travel to Cincinnati (4-0) tonight to take on the #20 (USA Today/ESPN) Bearcats. VeeMan, VandyMania's college basketball expert, gives a thorough preview of the game and predicts the winner. <i>Tipoff is at 7:00 p.m CST at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio; Radio: 104.5 "The Zone", TV: Fox Sports.</i>

The Vanderbilt Commodores gave a better account of themselves against the Oregon Ducks on Saturday than they did in their unfortunate showing in the Las Vegas Invitational. But, so far as their won-lost record is concerned, the result was the same as they came away from Portland, Oregon, with a 75-65 defeat. The Commodores shot the ball poorly, especially from three-point territory (24-5) and fell out of contention after trailing only 38-35 at halftime. Julian Terrell and Mario Moore had 14 points apiece and Corey Smith scored ten.

Next up are the Cincinnati Bearcats who come in with a 4-0 record. They defeated Valparaiso 88-70 and Northern Iowa 76-70 in two overtimes, then went on the road and won from Purdue 79-59 in Indianapolis and 65-55 at Dayton. The Northern Iowa game produced a real scare as the Bearcats fell behind by 18 points in the second half before catching up with a terrific rally.

Cincinnati is accustomed to success each year and their record in 2003-04 was 25-7. In conference play they had a record of 12-4. They made the NCAA tournament for the thirteenth consecutive year where they survived a big scare from East Tennessee in the first round, but were resoundingly defeated by Illinois in the second.

The Bearcats are coached by Bob Huggins who has been extremely successful there, compiling a record of 378-119 over the last fifteen years. Huggins is a graduate of the University of West Virginia who began his head coaching career with a 71-26 record at Walsh College in three years. He then went to Central Florida, where he was an assistant coach for one year before becoming head coach at Akron University, where he had a record of 97-46 in five seasons.

Huggins has received many coaching honors, including three Conference USA Coach of the Year awards, and selection as National Coach of the Year by ESPN in 2001-02. Despite the fact that he has consistently produced winning teams, he has been controversial in recent years. First, his teams play an aggressive type of defense that does not endear them to opponents. Second, his players tend to be perceived as muscular goons who seldom graduate, although three of them have made it to the NBA (Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin, Steve Logan). And now, third, he was suspended from his position last summer for driving under the influence, although reinstated well before the season began.

This year, Cincinnati is led by two of Huggins's brutes, 6-7 senior Jason Maxiell and 6-7 junior Eric Hicks. Maxiell packs 250 pounds and Hicks is a 240-pounder, and both of them are difficult to deal with under the basket. Maxiell is scoring 13.8 ppg and snatching down 9.2 rebounds, while Hicks is in with 13.2 ppg and 10.2 rebounds. They are typical Huggins-type enforcers, and both are certified shot-blockers (each has 2.8 blocks per game) with long arms and great leaping ability. They do all of their shooting from close-in and according to Cincinnati color-man Chuck Machock, "nobody can defend Hicks within five feet of the basket." And Maxiell is a bit better than Hicks.

The point guard, and currently leading scorer on the team, is 5-11 junior Jihad Muhammad, who led San Jacinto to the national JUCO championship last season. So far he has been averaging just two assists per game, but he is defensively sound and provides penetration with the ball. His current scoring average is 14.2 points per game, and he can shoot the three and is making nearly 87% of his free throws. He is a tough, a genuine Huggins-type player.

Rounding out the lineup are the two wing players, 6-8 junior Armein Kirkland and 6-7 junior James White. The slender Kirkland (11.2 ppg, four rebounds) is capable of the big-scoring night, as he showed by firing in 23 points in the Dayton game. On a given night, he can get hot from beyond the three-point line.

White started his career at Florida, where he played as a freshman; he is now scoring 10.2 ppg and rebounding at a rate of 6.2 per game. He is a track competitor in the long jump and high jump, and his quickness and leaping ability make him difficult to defend on the basketball court. He is hitting 41.7% of his three-point tries.

Cincinnati's weakness is a lack of depth. However, 6-2 junior Chadd Moore (4.8 ppg) spells Muhammad at point guard (although not as good a defender) and 6-4 senior Nick Williams (5.2 ppg) is a respectable wing player. 6-6 freshman Roy Bright (4.2 ppg) is a 225-pounder who can help out beneath. Others who might see some action are 6-1 senior Jamaal Lucas and 6-8 freshman Asrangue Souleymane. 6-3 freshman Vincent Banks was injured and not in uniform in the Dayton game.

Obviously Cincinnati can't come close to matching Vanderbilt's height, with no one over 6-8, but that isn't likely to stop them from dominating the boards (especially on their home court). Huggins will not have his team pressing, because of the lack of depth, but expect a tough half-court man-to-man defense.

This game provides Vanderbilt with some difficult matchups. Julian Terrell and Ted Skuchas are probably the best bets to try to keep Maxiell and Hicks in check. Przybyszewski might function beat on Kirkland, but putting him there when he is in the game could leave Corey Smith with the difficult assignment of trying to guard either Maxiell or Hicks. Holwerda seems to be a natural to defend White. Vanderbilt's point guards are likely to have difficulty with Muhammad.

The Shoemaker Center will be the most hostile environment that Vanderbilt will play in this season, excepting only Rupp Arena (Kentucky) and possibly O'Connell Center (Florida). This game isn't likely to produce a Vanderbilt win on the road, although Cincinnati may not blow the Commodores off the court. Cincinnati is picked here to win by eight to twelve points.

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