UNLV and Oklahoma didn't make the tournament this year, but the outlaw tradition is alive and well in the Queen City. When Bob Huggins took over Cincinnati in 1989, the glory days of Oscar Robertson and repeat NCAA titles in 1961 and '62 were moldy memories, but six junior college transfers and a Proposition 48 sophomore have lifted the Bearcats within one victory of their second straight Final Four berth.
While Dean Smith thinks that junior college transfers should sit out a year, Huggins used that quick-fix approach to resurrect the Bearcats, whose last trip to the NCAAs before his arrival was in 1977. Now that the foundation is in place, Huggins got early-period commitments from five high school seniors, and he bristles at the suggestion that his methods are unconventional.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there about junior colleges," said Huggins, a magna cum laude graduate from West Virginia and the son of an Ohio coaching legend. "They're more mature coming in than some kid who's never been away from mom and dad before. Jump in a van and ride five or six hours for games, they'll have a greater appreciation for where they are now."
Barroom brawls aren't the kind of life experiences Huggins was talking about, but a lawyer for center Corie Blount pleaded his innocence in a disorderly conduct charge stemming from a March 10 fight near campus, and yesterday guard Nick Van Exel entertained with tales of battling the locals during his junior college days in east Texas.
The Cincinnati motto is "We Ain't Gonna Feel Sorry For Your Punk A--," and these guys major in attitude even among themselves, witness the nationally televised feud Huggins had with power forward Erik Martin against DePaul. Huggins allows them freedom off the court, because he demands so much on it.
Starting guard Allen Jackson injured a knee in a first-round whipping of Coppin State, and only eight players saw serious time against Virginia in Friday's third-round win, but it was the Cavaliers who were gasping at the end. The Bearcats' level of intensity means that they will either crash in Turn 4 against North Carolina, or blow right past the Tar Heels.
Cincinnati might have the best-conditioned team in the country, a requirement for the intricate traps and rapid rotation off the ball that fuel the Bearcats' go-go style. Remember when Sports Illustrated diagrammed North Carolina's full-court schemes a few years back? Huggins doesn't care to discuss the dynamics.
"Ours [defense] is unique and I don't want to get into it," Huggins said. "It wouldn't be unique if I did."
Huggins doesn't court the media, and the chip on the team's shoulder is aided by what it thinks is a lack of recognition. They Bearcats are members of the up-and-coming Great Midwest Conference, but the two-year-old league doesn't have an automatic NCAA bid. Cincinnati was ranked No. 7 at the end of the regular season, but none of its victories is over a top 10 team.
"We never rightfully get the credit due us," said forward Terry Nelson, a stand-up comic who talks of suing the NCAA to get players a piece of the network TV pie. "I don't know how many more games we have to win, probably the national championship, but even then some people would still see us wearing the glass slipper."
Nelson did karaoke without a microphone at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village the other night, butchering the piped-in opera, but the swagger wasn't there in December. Cincinnati's only loss in its first 11 games was a 15-pointer at Indiana, but
even the Bearcats were surprised by a 10-1 start. Last year's top two scorers departed and Blount didn't win his fight for eligibility until mid-January.
Californians Blount and Martin have been teammates inside since they were together at Rancho Santiago College, and Huggins likes the way they stack up against Eric Montross and George Lynch.
"A lot of times, it's not the talent that wins games, it's what's on front of their jerseys," Huggins said. "When people go to Carolina, they think they'll be good and win games. The same thing is starting to happen with us."