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Bearcats putting pieces together

MILWAUKEE -- Either we're all getting snowed by Bob Huggins and his players, or they really believe they're not that good yet.

That's what we got after No. 7 Cincinnati's 85-73 undressing of Marquette at the Bradley Center in the Bearcats' season debut on national television and their first true road test against a ranked team.

The Bearcats aren't boasting. They're being a bit coy about their status on the national scene right now.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint, and sprinters get their ass beat," Huggins said of the season. "We've got two guys that know what they're doing -- Field (Williams) and Max (Jason Maxiell) -- and Max didn't play well. The other guys are still trying to figure it out."

The undefeated Bearcats still rocked Marquette, forcing 23 turnovers, pounding the glass (20 offensive rebounds) and answering every run by the Eagles.

"Hey, we've got good players," said Huggins, showing a bit more of his true feelings. "We've got 10 pretty good players."

Still, it was hard to get a read on Cincinnati before Wednesday. The Bearcats had beaten their first 11 opponents by an average of 26.2 points a game. Cincinnati entered its only meeting with Marquette in the unbalanced Conference USA schedule as one of five unbeaten teams. The number was reduced to four by night's end after Creighton lost at Northern Iowa.

"We didn't have a false confidence," Cincinnati's Eric Hicks said. "Everybody we were playing, we were just killing them."

The Bearcats have not been a regular on television, even on a regional package. They had played a softer slate while waiting for Florida transfer James White to become eligible -- which he did on Dec. 20.

"I don't doubt what coach wanted to do with the schedule," said Hicks.

Now the schedule's tougher. Cincinnati will play at Xavier on Feb. 3 and at Wake Forest on Feb. 15 in probably its two highest-profile, non-conference games. And next Wednesday the Bearcats are at Louisville in the marquee game of the Conference USA season.

"Hopefully we'll have a better performance Saturday (against TCU), because this one was sloppy," Hicks said. "It was just a matter of time before we were going to prove it. It was our first game on ESPN, and that's big, too."

Cincinnati had to endure a one-game benching of Robert Whaley, and a knee injury that has kept Armein Kirkland in street clothes the past two games. So it wasn't like Bearcats had avoided distractions or adversity.

At one point Wednesday, Cincinnati was up by 15 points even though nearly half of its average offense -- Maxiell, Kirkland (out) and Tony Bobbitt -- had accounted for just seven points.

But it didn't seem to faze this crew. Nick Williams and Field Williams, no relation, combined for six 3-pointers. And Hicks dominated the inside, especially on the board, as he finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

"We just keep sending out fresh bodies," Hicks said of the Bearcats' inside depth that includes Kareem Johnson and Whaley.

And that wave of 10 players -- even without Kirkland -- contributed to the Bearcats' dominant play.

Believers?

You better believe the Bearcats have converted Marquette -- less than a year after the Eagles became the first C-USA team to reach the Final Four and only squad other than the Bearcats to win C-USA's regular-season title in its brief seven-year history.

"When you beat teams by an average of 20-something, and your closest game was a 19-point win at Valpo, then you're good," Marquette guard Travis Diener said. "We knew how good they were. They've got all the respect from us."

Marquette practiced for Cincinnati's press with five-on-seven work this week. But Marquette coach Tom Crean said he was disappointed in the Eagles' performance because it didn't transfer to the game. Marquette panicked and committed plenty of unforced turnovers in the Bearcats' halfcourt defense.

And, remember, Cincinnati didn't think it played that well.

"We didn't play Cincinnati basketball," Bobbitt said. "We missed free throws (making 23 of 38) and had turnovers (14) over nothing. We didn't handle the adversity. Nick Williams and Eric Hicks stepped up (for Maxiell)," who scored just four points, 11 off his average.

Bobbitt wasn't through.

"The whole day in the hotel, you didn't see guys laughing," Bobbitt said. "The main thing was we were trying to find our video guy to find out what Diener was going to do. I kept my mouth running. In the first half, I sucked. In the second half, I found my rhythm." Bobbott made 4 of 8 shots to finish with 18 points.

Nick Williams and Hicks were laughing at Bobbitt after his postgame news conference, making it seem like it was even more of an act to disguise their true feelings.

Bobbitt had once again acted as a surrogate coach at the podium, breaking down Cincinnati, giving credit to Marquette and assuring everyone that the Bearcats have plenty to work on -- just in case anyone thought the Bearcats were getting too confident.

But the reality is that this Cincinnati team is as deep, athletic and tenacious (on defense and on the boards) as any team Huggins has produced in recent seasons.

Diener has seen Cincinnati the past three seasons. He saw the No. 1 seeded Bearcats two seasons ago, a team that was almost one-dimensional with Steve Logan. That team lost in the second round to UCLA.

A year ago, the Bearcats finished 17-12 and lost to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"They're a totally different style this year because they get up and press you in the halfcourt," Diener said. "They're extremely physical right now. They press and force turnovers. If they keep improving like this, they'll be one of the top teams in the country."

But are they as good as Connecticut, Duke and Stanford?

"I'll let you be the judge," Hicks said. "I think we should be (in that company), but it's not my decision. I think we should be up there."

Opps, sounds like Huggins is changing his tune. Yes, Cincinnati knows it's pretty good. So did anyone who saw the Bearcats on Wednesday night. It was only a matter of time before the 'Cats came clean.

The admission came about 30 minutes after its 12th straight victory.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.