Even Cincinnati hasn't embraced transfer-laden Bearcats

April 03, 1992|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,Knight-Ridder

Bob Huggins has a big mouth. He admits it proudly. He speaks in absolutes. He is brash and, above all, he is always right.

Just ask the city of Cincinnati.

Three years ago, Huggins, a slightly manic, blow-dried, exquisitely dressed young coach from Akron, was hired to revive the University of Cincinnati's once-proud, then-humiliated basketball program. Huggins arrived on a campus that was fed up with players who had trouble with the law and academics and winning.

"I am," Huggins said the day he was hired, "going to take the University of Cincinnati to the Final Four. Right away. Every year. That's the plan."

So he hasn't taken them every year. But he's brought them there awfully fast. Tomorrow the Bearcats (29-4) will play Michigan in the NCAA tournament semifinals in Minneapolis. Cincinnati should be the team of charming underdogs. One starting forward is a stand-up comedian. The other raises piranhas. The starting center is a blue-light special. He worked at K Mart for a year after high school.

But here's the thing. Huggins has rebuilt the program in a way that offends some, worries some. Eleven players, and all the starters, are transfers, either from junior colleges or other four-year colleges.

Anthony Buford, the wonderfully confident shooter and leader, followed Huggins from Akron. When Buford left the Akron program, he said that "if I can't play basketball for Coach Huggins, I don't want to stay in school." Not words the NCAA will rTC want to put on one of those "Stay in school" posters.

Two years in a row Huggins has brought the national junior college player of the year to Cincinnati. Backup center Jeff Scott is at his third Division I school.

Huggins said his plan wasn't to concentrate on the junior colleges. But he also said, "Too many coaches say they're on a five-year plan. We want to win right now. I don't cheat people. If you say you're on a five-year plan, you're basically asking for an excuse to lose."

Huggins said he and his staff (one assistant coach was once a Bible salesman) make careful checks of the backgrounds of each of their players. "We talk to moms, dads, friends, teachers, aunts, uncles," Huggins said Sunday after the Bearcats had walloped Memphis State to earn a trip to the Final Four. While he said that, Buford and point guard Nick Van Exel sat next to their coach rolling their eyes.

There was an arms-length feeling about the relationship between the celebrating Cincinnati fans and the team on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. "I love my school and I love basketball," said one man, who described himself as a 55-year-old "lifelong UC booster." "But sometimes these kids worry me. They don't seem appreciate any of the tradition here. They seem to be only out for themselves."

It is a team that has a chip on its shoulder. Herb Jones, the leading scorer and the man who loves feeding goldfish to his piranhas, said the Bearcats have received no respect this season, so "people don't deserve our respect. And now people will only be saying how great Michigan is with all those freshmen and stuff. Everybody will know every Michigan player and won't know one of us. And we don't care."

Terry Nelson, the comedian who has performed in clubs in California and who reportedly does drop-dead funny imitations of Huggins' sideline tirades, said the players are tired of being labeled misfits and troublemakers. "We have a certain attitude that people don't like," he said. "Some people call us cocky, and maybe because we are more mature and experienced we have a little more confidence than other players.

"But we've heard some bad stuff too. That we're all, like, illiterate because we had to go to junior college. Maybe it would be nicer for the fans if Coach Huggins had gone out and recruited lots of big-time high school guys. But he couldn't. Those guys wouldn't set foot here like the program was. So we're in the Final Four and that's all that matters, right?"

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cincinnati was a glamour program. The Bearcats won two straight national titles and went for a then-unprecedented third in a row before losing to Loyola of Chicago in overtime in the 1963 final. Oscar Robertson, whom some still consider the finest college basketball player ever, starred at Cincinnati. There is a proud tradition. Yet these players, who came to Cincinnati from California and Massachusetts and Alabama and Texas and Georgia, seemed to know little about the past.

"Yeah, I heard Cincinnati was supposed to be good once," Van Exel said. "But that doesn't mean nothing now. I mean I didn't come to Cincinnati because of something they did way back when."

Huggins said coaching this team is a joy because "we have no selfish players. These players don't have egos. They have bonded together. They do everything together."

Corie Blount, the team's 6-foot-10 center, was last year's junior college player of the year and used to work at K Mart. He said there is a reason why the team is so close. "We hang together because sometimes we feel out of place," he said on Sunday.

Blount, who has an open face and a friendly smile, had a wistful look in his eyes. "People around campus sometimes act like we don't belong or something. We've got a rep, like we're bad or something. Maybe it's our fault a little. We act too tough. But too many people think we're just bad. That's not right. But that's how it is."

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