Given the amount of preseason possum-playing that coaches engage
in, the comments of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins have been
refreshing. Shortly after Mississippi State bounced his Bearcats
from the NCAA tournament last March, Huggins put to rest
speculation that he might light out for a pro coaching job. He
said, "I've got a chance to have the best team I've ever had.
Why would I want to leave?" At July's Adidas/ABCD Camp in
Teaneck, N.J., Huggins said that Kobe Bryant, the
Philadelphia-area high school prodigy so talented that he
bypassed college to become a Los Angeles Laker, "couldn't start
for us." When Huggins ran into former UMass coach John Calipari
this summer, he half-jokingly suggested that Cincinnati
scrimmage against Calipari's new team, the New Jersey Nets.
Asked about his reluctance to poor-mouth the Bearcats'
prospects, Huggins says, "It's hard to accomplish things if you
don't believe you can." Few Cincinnati players need convincing
that the Bearcats are well fixed to win a national title. This
season's team, like the 1991-92 Cincy squad that went to the
Final Four, features lots of junior college transfers and has a
sense of cohesion born of a European summer tour. Just as they
did in '91-92, the Bearcats have players so versatile that they
call to mind the Queen City's famous Skyline Chili, which can be
ordered up in any of several tasty variations.
The team's anchor will again be 6'9" Danny Fortson, the
All-America power forward whose strength stirred St. Louis coach
Charlie Spoonhour to remark, "I could do a chin-up on his arm,
and it wouldn't affect his shooting." During his first two
seasons Fortson became a numbingly reliable inside scorer,
although he was prone to foul trouble and was not much of a
passer. But a regimen of boxing workouts last summer improved
his footwork, and Cincinnati's bumper recruiting crop will give
him new reason to dish off the ball. "Our scoring attack isn't
going to be like it was the last couple of years, when I did
everything," Fortson says.
One newcomer who should pick up plenty of points is 6'7" forward
Ruben Patterson, who starred last season at Independence (Kans.)
Community College. Patterson is already being billed as this
season's Dontae' Jones, a reference to the prodigious juco
transfer who took Mississippi State to last season's Final Four
and then bolted to the NBA. Patterson has a slashing style
reminiscent of that of Herb Jones, the star of the '91-92
December 2, 1996
Another player who'll help take the offensive load off Fortson
is outside shooter Darnell Burton, the 6'2" sixth man who five
times last season scored points that either won or clinched
games. He and Fortson work the two-man game as formidably as any
pair in college basketball since Eric Montross and Donald
Williams anchored the '92-93 championship team at North
Carolina. Burton has no problem with not starting. "Long as
we're winning," he says, "it's straight."
Burton will be part of the unit that most excites Huggins:
Cincinnati's backcourt. "Our Final Four team was able to wear
people down with four good guards," Huggins says. This edition
of the Bearcats will feature six guards: Burton, rubbery 6'5"
swingman Damon Flint, 6'3" reserves Terrence Davis and Melvin
Levett, and two juco additions--6'2" Charles Williams, who is a
natural point, and D'Juan Baker, 6'2", a pure shooter. Huggins
hopes this unit will spearhead a defense as tough as that of the
'92 Final Four team, whose press was so withering that Michigan
State coach Jud Heathcote was moved to ask Huggins if he had
ever considered having his players intentionally throw the ball
out of bounds to increase the likelihood that they'd score.
The only question mark is 6'9", 250-pound junior center Jackson
Julson, who was hampered by illness and injury last season and
logged barely 10 minutes a game. But ever since the team's
14-day tour through Italy and France in August, Julson has been
in great shape. Besides, Cincy's style--extended defense and
motion offense--makes a center more of a secondary role player.
If Julson can tend to rebounding, screen setting and defensive
chores, and thus free up Fortson and Patterson, the Bearcats
will be well served.
"We have to win," Fortson says, "because we deserve it. We work
harder than anybody else. So if we lose, it would be like
somebody was stealing our food."
That is not the sound of a possum.