CINCINNATI -- They came here from backwater towns and big cities, junior colleges and other Division I schools. Each had something to prove, or someone to prove wrong. In most cases, the attraction was not so much the coach or the university itself, but the opportunity to show they could play major-college basketball.
If the Cincinnati Bearcats earned grudging respect during a 25-4 regular season, ultimately rising to No. 12 in the national rankings, then this week's NCAA Midwest Regional in Kansas City, Mo., will get them the spotlight they long have coveted. The Bearcats will play another overlooked team, Texas El-Paso (27-6), Friday night at Kemper Arena.
"The motto 'Something To Prove' has driven this team for a long time," junior forward Terry Nelson said Sunday afternoon in the locker room at the University of Dayton, shortly after Cincinnati dispatched Michigan State, 77-65. "We won a lot of games this season, and nobody noticed. Now, people are watching."
Nelson is one of 10 transfers on this year's team, eight from junior colleges in Texas, California and Kansas. The other two, senior forward Anthony Buford and senior center Jeff Scott, came from other Division I schools. It's part of third-year coach Bob Huggins' philosophy to bring in players who are ready to play.
"I don't believe in rebuilding," said Huggins, 38, a former West Virginia and Ohio State assistant who spent five years as a head coach at Akron. "We have five seniors on the team, and you owe them a chance to be a part of this."
Many of those who played a part in Sunday's victory were overlooked by major Division I teams coming out of high school. Some, such as junior guard Nick Van Excel, didn't have the grades. Some, such as senior guard Herb Jones, didn't have the confidence. And some, such as junior forward Corie Blount, didn't have the size.
Assistant coach Steve Moeller, who has spent time at the Division I and II levels, recalled seeing Blount as a 6-foot-5, 160-pound high school senior in Covina, Calif. The next time Moeller saw Blount, he had grown to 6-7 1/2 , 180 pounds and was playing at Rancho Santiago (Calif.) College. Blount is now 6-10, 220 pounds and starts for the Bearcats at center.
But Blount's story is a familiar one at Cincinnati. Buford was overlooked by Michigan State while growing up in Flint, Mich., went to Akron for three years and followed Huggins here last year. Scott, who grew up near the campus, went to Miami (Ohio) for two years before coming home.
"They are not bums. They are not bad kids," said Moeller. "Van Excel was a 'B' student, but never took the SATs. Nelson was at Cal-Fullerton, but left when the coach got fired. Martin was an honor student and went to TCU. Blount predicted [was thought to have the grades] out of high school, but nobody recruited him. There are a lot of stereotypes about junior college kids, but these kids don't fit the stereotype."
Though not the most patient bunch on offense, the Bearcats break the stereotype that ex-JuCo athletes don't play defense. Huggins always has had a passion for defense, learning it first from his high school coach. Charles Huggins won four Ohio state championships. The passion was passed from father to son, and now to his players.
"If you don't play defense," said Van Excel, "you don't play."
Against Michigan State, Cincinnati brought out a pressing, trapping, helter-skelter defense used to create havoc. It did: The Spartans shot 28 percent in the second half. The defense is similar to the one used by Nevada-Las Vegas when it won the national championship two years ago.
Comparisons with the Runnin' Rebels are obvious, considering attention to defense and the way Huggins has brought in junior college players. But a school that spent a year on NCAA probation -- Huggins inherited some scholarship sanctions as a result of infractions committed by his predecessor, Tony Yates -- is wary about its image.
Rather, the Bearcats and their fans would choose to remember the program's glory years with Oscar Robertson and Paul Hogue, when Cincinnati won back-to-back national championships in 1961-62. Now that the favorites are all home, the fourth-seeded Bearcats suddenly have become the team to beat in the Midwest Regional.
"We can play with anybody," said Nelson, an aspiring stand-up comic who has performed in clubs around the Los Angeles area. "We set a lot of goals for ourselves this season. We wanted to win our conference [the Great Midwest], and we did. We wanted to win 25 games, and we have. We wanted to go to the final eight, and now we have one more to go."
The impression the Bearcats left with some in Dayton last weekend was of a team that likes to talk on and off the court. Not only do they yap at the opposition, but also they throw disparaging looks at each other. And though they agree on most things, there is not total harmony among the ranks.
When Van Excel was told what Nelson had said about the team's motto, he shook his head.