Cincy's Martin breaks ankle

No. 1 Bearcats lose star forward for season in loss to Saint Louis

`I felt it pop,' senior says

Surgery to come next

full recovery expected

March 10, 2000|By CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Kenyon Martin heard the pop as he attempted to pivot on his right leg. As Cincinnati trainer Jayd Grossman approached him, Martin told him he was sure the ankle was broken.

It was. First, the ligament between his tibula and fibula bones had snapped, and then the fibula was fractured. Along with -- almost certainly -- the top-ranked Bearcats' hopes of a national championship.

It happened with no warning, three minutes into Cincinnati's quarterfinal game yesterday with Saint Louis in the Conference USA tournament. His leg was placed in an air cast and he was taken for X-rays to Campbell's Clinic.

Martin, the Conference USA Player of the Year and yesterday named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's All-America first team, returned to the Pyramid midway through the second half on crutches, with the leg in a cast below the knee. And he sat behind Cincinnati's bench, trying to coax his teammates to victory. It did no good. Without the league's best player, the depressed Bearcats -- undefeated in the league during the regular season -- fell to the Billikens, 68-58.

"I was going to set a down-screen for DerMarr [Johnson] and I felt it pop," Martin said after the game, his leg propped on a blue folding chair. "I knew it was broken; I didn't have control over it."

Surgery will be scheduled back in Cincinnati. But it was obvious that the pain brought by the abrupt end of his college career was more intense than that in his ankle.

"I'll be there with them no matter what they do, no matter where they go," Martin said of his teammates.

Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said, "We're going to give it a go. It's a traumatic thing to go through. He means so much in so many ways.

"What you have to appreciate about Kenyon is that it's all about the team. It's always the team. He kept saying, `We worked so hard, we worked so hard.'"

Martin is expected to make a total recovery and could be running again in 2 1/2 to 3 months. Which means his NBA lottery status -- he will be among the first players taken -- may only be marginally affected. But more immediately, Cincinnati must go on.

"Everything changes without him," Huggins said. "The biggest thing missing without Kenyon was when guys were in the wrong place, he would put them in the right spot. He conceptualizes the game so well."

Martin, a unanimous pick as the league's Player of the Year, was considered a good bet to win national honors as well. He led Conference USA in scoring (19.5), rebounding (10.0) and blocked shots (3.6). Put simply, he dominated inside.

He'll likely be replaced in the starting lineup by 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior Ryan Fletcher, who contributed 11 points and nine rebounds yesterday. Donald Little, a 6-10 freshman, will get more work. Senior forward Jermaine Tate must rebound more effectively. And senior forward Pete Mickeal and freshman guard DerMarr Johnson will be expected to pick up their scoring.

The Bearcats' won't be terrible without Martin, but that expected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament might evaporate.

"I don't think there's a precedent for this," said Conference USA assistant commissioner Brian Teter. "Now the selection committee will be asked to evaluate whether they deserve a No. 1 seed based on their 30 games with Kenyon, or try to predict what they'll be like without him.

"My gut feeling was that with a first-game loss in the tournament, Cincinnati still would have been a No. 1 seed, but that all may be different now."

Now, Cincinnati and to a lesser extent the league are left rudderless as they approach the NCAA tournament. And that has cast a pall over this tournament.

Cincinnati, Louisville and DePaul are considered likely to get NCAA bids, and the league would get a fourth berth if some other team wins this tournament. But Conference USA's chances of making a Final Four appearance drop dramatically with the disappearance of the league's best player.

"I'm just disappointed that a lot of people here and across the country will miss seeing Kenyon play," Teter said. "They'll be missing something special."

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