Dec. 14, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - A river runs through Elijah Pittman's history with Cincinnati Bearcats basketball, but the Marshall junior forward said there's no reason to burn any bridges.
Pittman grew up in Covington, Ky., across the Ohio River from the city that's home to Oscar Robertson's alma mater. And in years before Pittman helped Holmes High to a Kentucky Sweet Sixteen state tournament runner-up finish and then a championship, he said he had a summer presence on the UC campus with, among others, current Bearcat Coach Mike Cronin.
"He knew me when I was younger," Pittman said of the Bearcats' seventh-year coach who went from Cincinnati to Louisville as an assistant and then on to head coach at Murray State before getting the UC job. "He recruited me some. I went to a whole lot of camps over there.
"When I've seen him since, he's let me know how good of a player I was, I could have been there, could have went there. But I'm here now."
Pittman and Cronin will be the same floor Saturday, when 11th-ranked Cincinnati (9-0) faces the Thundering Herd (6-4) at the Charleston Civic Center in a 2 p.m. tipoff. Marshall won at UC's Fifth Third Arena in overtime last season, when Pittman was playing junior college ball in Texas.
These Bearcats are ranked higher than UC has stood since the 2003-04 season, when Bob Huggins was still coaching there. Cronin's club - picked to finish fourth in the Big East this season - ranks in the top 10 in six team categories among NCAA Division I teams.
"They're a pretty good team," said Pittman, who is averaging 14.2 points for the Herd. "A lot of dribble drive, throw and pitch ... they love to press. I know some of the guys on that team from playing AAU, from junior college. They're talented."
Marshall goes into the game without top scorer DeAndre Kane (15.0 ppg), who also ranks third nationally in assists average (8.5). The junior from Pittsburgh is out indefinitely with a right (shooting) hand injury.
The 6-foot-9 Pittman said that means other have to pick up in various ways, and maybe Pittman gets more scoring opportunities. He's only averaging nine shots per game, and his height, length and ability to shoot the 3 make him a potentially bigger scorer, especially in Kane's absence.
"It's just like if Kobe Bryant wasn't on the floor," Pittman said when asked to define what Kane's absence means. "It's just like if Michael Jordan isn't on the floor one game, like Derrick Rose not being on the court now for the Chicago Bulls.
"It's just another good person down, someone steps up, has to step up. They have to play better and look at it like, `This is my chance to show I can play.'"
Herd Coach Tom Herrion after recent games has repeatedly remarked on how his team has been getting good shots, but missing too many attempts down low and stickbacks. And when the Herd misses free throws - it ranks 326th of 345 teams nationally, at 59.8 percent - that "leads to empty possessions," the MU coach said.
"I don't think the biggest problem is our scoring, to be honest with you," Pittman said. "We're going to score whenever. We'll be fine there. The problem is our defense, in transition, and lack of communication there. That's the only thing that stops this team, really.
"We've missed a lot of stickbacks, bunnies, tips, stuff like that, but that's basketball. You've got to convert, and sometimes you don't. We've got to be stronger and get better."
Herrion is satisfied with Pittman's offensive production, but said the rangy player who usually mans the three spot could get more opportunities to score.
"Within the structure and flow of the offense, sure," Herrion said of Pittman perhaps getting more shots. "A lot of guys need to get shots, and we've got to balance that out.
"He's doing a good job so far and he's getting shots within the offense and he's taking open shots, his productivity has been very good. I'd like to see him rebound more (4.8 per game), he's got to rebound from his position a little bit better."
Pittman, who is shooting .544 from the floor, including .405 (17-of-42) from behind the arc, said he's not going to press for more opportunities.
"I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," he said. "When I am getting the ball and when I'm not getting the ball ... it all boils down to somebody else getting me more shots. I don't determine that. It just happens, the flow of the offense.
Herrion's team won at UC, 73-69 in overtime, last season, as forward Dennis Tinnon had 15 points and 14 rebounds and the Herd owned the boards, 43-30. Tinnon is Marshall's only returning starter from that game who will play Saturday.
"Turnovers, creating turnovers that lead to points, opening the floor up," Herrion said when asked what impresses him most about Cincinnati. "They're really good, explosive in the open court, their defense creates offense, so we've got to be really tight with the ball, strong with the ball.
"And then glass (rebounding). They've got a large number on the glass (46.8 per game, a plus-11.8 margin) and obviously we pride ourselves on being a good rebounding team. Those two areas are what concern me the most."
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Cincinnati ranks 21st in major college basketball history with 1,633 wins. The Herd is playing four of the top 30 in all-time wins this season in Kentucky (1st), the Bearcats (21st), WVU (22nd) and Villanova (29th) ... Those four schools have combined for 11 NCAA championships and 27 Final Four appearances ... This is the sixth time Marshall has played a ranked UC team. The first four of those were during the Bearcats' five straight Final Four seasons (1958-59 through 1962-63) ... The game will be the 30th at the Civic Center in Herd hoops history. Marshall is 7-22 in the building, most of those against West Virginia. Marshall is 2-3 against other clubs in Charleston, but has played there against teams other than WVU only twice in the last 30 seasons (loss to Oregon in 2004-05, win over Ohio in 2009-10). Cincinnati has one game of Charleston Civic Center history, when the Gale Catlett-coached Bearcats lost to West Virginia, 66-56 in February 1976.