2002-03 Cincinnati Season Review
The 2002-03 Cincinnati Bearcats were often described as a work-in-progress. The team's lack of experience-four starters who had led the previous season's squad to a 31-4 record had departed-was one major factor. Gone were the leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker from 2001-02. The Bearcats were also size-challenged-their tallest players measuring 6-8.
Throughout the year, the coaches experimented with combinations of newcomers and inexperienced veterans.
While the 17-12 season fell short of the accomplishments of recent UC squads-the program's nation-leading streak of 25-win seasons and Conference USA regular season championships were both ended at seven-it was not without its share of stellar individual performances and key victory efforts.
The Bearcats finished fourth in the C-USA race, though they were the leaders or co-leaders for the first third of league play, jumping out to a 6-0 start.
UC posted a 3-5 record against Top 25 teams, scoring headline-grabbing upsets of No. 5 Oregon and No. 4 Louisville as well as a heady win over No. 11 Oklahoma State.
Individually, Leonard Stokes moved up Cincinnati's career scoring list, closing his career at No. 17 on the UC scoring list with 1,318 points. The fourth-year senior stepped up his level of play as he was expected to do, leading the team in scoring and was second in rebounding and assists.
Taron Barker took over the floor leadership responsibilities at point guard. His steady, error-minimized play helped the Bearcats get the most out of their offensive weapons as he led the league in assists-to-turnovers ratio and was among the leaders in assists.
Jason Maxiell continued to refine his play in the post to become an effective scorer and defender around the basket. Field Williams provided long-distance scoring support and began his climb into the UC 3-point shooting milestones.
Stokes Takes Charge
As the lone four-year senior and easily the most veteran player on a largely green team, Stokes was challenged with providing leadership by performance. The 6-6 senior responded, particularly during the early season.
Cincinnati's season-opening win over Tennessee Tech exemplified Stokes' impact. The cold-shooting Bearcats had suffered through a nine and a half minute scoring drought, during which they fell behind by six points midway through the second half. Stokes snapped that drought with a basket, and tallied 15 straight UC points to put UC ahead for good, 39-38, with 5:48 to play. He finished with 21 points.
Stokes scored in double figures in UC's first 16 games and led the team in scoring in eight of those contests. He became a leader by example.
Unlike recent seasons, Cincinnati's attack was more diversified with several Bearcats stepping up at times to play leadership roles.
Field Williams got untracked for 22 points to pace Cincinnati's win over Florida A&M and led the team's scoring efforts in its next two contests. Despite his 15 points, Cincinnati saw its streak of victories over Dayton end at 11 with a 75-69 loss to the Flyers. The Bearcats rebounded to rout Valparaiso, 76-50, with Williams scoring 17 points.
Teams which rely on perimeter shooting, like the Bearcats were forced to do throughout 2002-03, can be subject to offensive slumps. Such was the case for Cincinnati in its annual crosstown battle with Xavier. UC, which throughout the year was among the nation's stingiest in allowing points and opponents' field goal percentage, held the Musketeers to 50 points and .389 shooting. The Bearcats shot just 30 percent and managed only 44 points in suffering their second loss of the season.
Cincinnati rebounded with a 65-62 win over LaSalle. Maxiell led the way with 18 points and 12 rebounds and Armein Kirkland became the first of the newcomers to step up and play a key role in a victory. The 6-8 freshman scored a game-clinching basket in the final seconds of the game.
UC Draws National Attention
No one was giving the Bearcats much of a chance in their clash with No. 5 Oregon at the Jimmy V Classic. Cincinnati put those doubters on notice with a convincing 77-52 win. Another newcomer, Tony Bobbitt, keyed the victory. The 6-4 junior, who had managed just 28 points in UC's first six games, exploded for 29. While the UC offense was hot, the defense also rose to the challenge and held the high-scoring Ducks 40 points under their season average and their lowest point total in five seasons.
Cincinnati suffered an upset loss to Clemson five days later. The Bearcats closed out the preconference portion of their schedule with wins over Miami and Chattanooga. Derek Hollman, little used up to that point, had his best day as a Bearcat in the Miami win, scoring seven points.
An injury to Barker gave freshman Chadd Moore his first big chance at point guard. Moore, who had gone a month without playing, started the Chattanooga game and boosted the 81-51 rout with 12 points and eight assists.
UC fans envisioned a battle for the point guard spot between the steady Barker and flashier but inexperienced Moore. The competition elevated Barker's level of play. The 6-1 senior dished out assists at a rate of over six a game over the month of January and had an assist-to-turnovers ratio of nearly 7:1.
Stokes continued to provide the leadership spark. He scored five of his 11 points in the final three minutes to clinch a 64-56 win over DePaul on Jan. 8. Three days later he had 10 of his 20 points in the final 6:33 to rally UC from a two-point deficit to an 83-72 win over TCU. The senior keyed the 66-56 win over Saint Louis with 25 points, then scored 30 points in the 77-54 victory over Tulane. Stokes earned C-USA co-Player of the Week honors.
Stokes was also the high scorer in wins over East Carolina and Charlotte. DePaul cooled off Stokes, holding him to just nine points and ending Cincinnati's win streak at eight. Williams' 22 points were not enough as UC fell to the Blue Demons, 56-52.
Tough February for Cats
Cincinnati opened the month of February with three straight games against top 11-ranked teams. As was the case in the DePaul setback, UC fell to sizeable first half deficits in its games vs. No. 16 Marquette and No. 5 Louisville, then had second-half comeback efforts fall short. Williams had his second straight 22-point game in the 82-76 loss to Marquette. Maxiell asserted himself with 21 points and 10 rebounds in the 77-71 setback to Louisville.
The Bearcats rebounded to upset No. 11 Oklahoma State, 61-50. Maxiell's career-high 24 points was the offensive highlight of the defensive battle between the Bearcats and the Cowboys.
Cincinnati seemed poised for a strong stretch run but suffered losses to unranked Charlotte and Saint Louis to fall to 14-8.
Perhaps feeling a renewed sense of urgency, UC exploded for a 101-80 whipping of No. 4 Louisville on Feb. 22. Stokes led the rout with 31 points and Bobbitt found the shooting eye which had eluded him much of the month to fire in 25 points. The Bearcats set school records for free throws (42) and free throw attempts (58).
The center position, at which Cincinnati had alternated three players much of the season, became Kareem Johnson's following his improved play during this stretch. The 6-7 junior had nine rebounds each in the Louisville and Oklahoma State games, and in the rematch with Louisville later in the month scored a career-high 10 points.
The Stretch Run
The Bearcats suffered a scare in their rematch with East Carolina. Maxiell sank one of two free throw tries with four seconds remaining and the Bearcats hung on for a 53-52 victory.
Teams whose offense relies on perimeter scoring can be destroyed by when shooting goes awry, as was the case in Cincinnati's loss at Memphis. The Bearcats got 3-point scoring from Field Williams and Tony Bobbitt to lead much of the game's first 25 minutes. UC made just four field goals in the second half to succumb to the No. 24 Tigers, 67-48.
The Bearcats rebounded with a convincing 87-70 win over UAB on senior night. Leonard Stokes, playing his final home game as a Bearcat, led the way with 23 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
Cincinnati had the chance to play the spoiler's role to Marquette's bid to become the first team besides Cincinnati to win a C-USA regular season title outright. The Bearcats led the Golden Eagles through the first half before falling, 70-61.
UC closed regular season play with a 17-10 record and with a 9-7 C-USA mark, entered the conference tournament at the No. 5 seed. The Bearcats' tourney stay was cut short by Southern Mississippi, which upset the Bearcats, 63-61.
Cincinnati was seeded No. 8 in the West Region. Gonzaga ended the Bearcats' season with a 74-69 win. Like many other setbacks, UC fell behind early, then fought back from a deficit in the second half to be in a position to win the game.
Cincinnati finished just short of achieving many victories during the course of the season. The Bearcats built a foundation upon which to improve in 2003-04.