MINNEAPOLIS -- Anthony Buford always has had this thing about Michigan. Growing up in Flint, about an hour's drive north of Detroit, he could hardly wait to get out.
It had partly to do with the drug-infested neighborhood in which he grew up, and partly to do with the lack of recognition he received playing high school basketball.
"Once I got out, I hardly went back," Buford recalled earlier this week.
Buford, a 6-foot-3 senior point guard for the University of Cincinnati, has become big news back in his old stomping ground. And by tomorrow, when the Bearcats play the Michigan Wolverines at the Metrodome in the first NCAA semifinal game, Buford might even get bigger.
It would be about time, considering the circuitous, if not tortuous, route that finally landed him in the middle of college basketball's spotlight. After years in the shadows, Buford could get some attention.
"When I was coming up in high school, I didn't receive the type of credit I felt I deserved," said Buford, who transferred to Cincinnati last year after playing three seasons at Akron. "I was one of the better players in the state, but you'd have to do a lot ofsearching to find mention of me. It was almost like I couldn't play."
It's not that Buford went completely unnoticed. After his sophomore year at Akron, Buford worked as a counselor at a summer camp on the west side of Chicago. The owner of the camp took notice of Buford after they played together in a few pickup games.
One night, Buford missed a jumper and went to follow it in with a dunk. But the other guy got there first, and was a bit higher off the ground. It happens sometimes when you're fighting somewhere in the ozone with a fellow named Jordan.
"Michael took an interest in me," said Buford. "He wanted to know why I wasn't going to some bigger school instead of Akron. He said he'd see if Dean Smith had any interest, but I didn't know anything about North Carolina. Then he came back and told me Dean Smith didn't take any transfers."
So Buford went back to Akron, just as his coach, Bob Huggins, was leaving for Cincinnati. Coleman Crawford, who had been Huggins' top assistant, was taking over at Akron and Buford said he thought that the transition would be smooth. It was anything but, as Crawford changed the system that helped the Zips to the NCAA tournament and tried to change Buford's role.
"We just didn't communicate," said Buford, who still managed to average a team-high 19.8 points. "I was miserable. The love for the game was starting to disappear. I wasn't going to quit the team and just finish school, but then I talked to Coach Huggins."
Huggins was putting together the core of a team that would go 29-4 this season. Junior-college players were coming in from all over the country and Jeff Scott, a 6-10 center, was coming home to Cincinnati after playing at two other schools.
"Our second group without him last year was not very good," said Huggins, who eventually wound up with 10 transfers among the 11 players he has on scholarship this season. "I thought he made a lot of our other guys better by just competing with them. What he brings to practice every day is a lot of intensity. A lot of guys don't like to practice. He loves to practice. He loves being in the gym and competing."
Said Buford, "The thing that made it [transferring] easier was I knew Coach Huggins' system. I'm probably able to recognize the plays we run in certain situations better than some of the assistant coaches. I have an awful lot of experience running, and I think the guys respect that."
Buford, 23, says he might have felt a need to prove himself had a game like the Michigan contest come up earlier in his career. Though he went to former coach Bill Frieder's camp in Ann Arbor, he holds no grudge against Michigan coach Steve Fisher or any of the players. Especially "The Fab Five."
"Those guys are much younger than I am, so I really don't know them," said Buford, who averages 15.2 points, second on the team to senior forward Herb Jones' (18.2). "I was friendly with the guys on their last Final Four team. They told me what it was like to be at the Final Four. It's always been a dream for me to play in one."
Like a lot of guys his age who grew up in Michigan, Buford's first recollection of the Final Four was of the 1979 matchup between Michigan State and Indiana State, and between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As he began to play college basketball, the interest became more intense.
Three years ago, Buford started videotaping the Final Four. Two years ago, UNLV guard Anderson Hunt, an old friend from the Detroit summer leagues, was named Most Valuable Player. He knows the next couple of days, and maybe more, will be different than it was in Dayton, Ohio, two weeks ago for the subregional or Kansas City, Mo., for the Midwest Regional last week.
"Everything is stepped up a notch or two," said Buford.
Buford is ready for this new-found spotlight. It has been a long time coming.