Cincinnati's Fortson hopes a smooth start is in future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CINCINNATI -- Danny Fortson longs to begin a basketball season healthy and unhassled.

"I can't remember what that's like," Fortson said, "but I do know one thing: It's going to be a good season when it happens."

A precocious 18-year-old freshman with an abundance of offensive skills and a history of false starts, Fortson gradually has emerged as the most consistent player for Cincinnati, which challenges Maryland in the 7-Up Shootout at the Alamodome in San Antonio today.

A 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward, Fortson is averaging 14.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, but he says those numbers would be better if not for his third straight shaky preseason.

Coach Bob Huggins was already fretting over his condition last October, when Fortson contracted pneumonia and missed three weeks of practice.

The year before, Fortson's final year of high school eligibility was questioned after he was one of the prep stars provided with illegal benefits by Nike at a summer camp in 1993.

That concern was minor compared with what he went through two seasons ago, when Fortson's junior season for Shaler High in Pittsburgh was halted after two games when Pennsylvania officials ruled he had transferred for athletic reasons.

Despite his travails and senior guard LaZelle Durden being Cincinnati's top scorer, Fortson is viewed as the player who can lead the Bearcats back to the status they enjoyed in 1992, when they made a surprise run to the Final Four, and in 1993, when they took eventual NCAA champion North Carolina into overtime in the East Region final.

Huggins first noticed Fortson four years ago, when the player was living in Altoona, Pa. Last summer, after the McDonald's All-American chose Cincinnati over Michigan and Massachusetts, Fortson raised Huggins' anticipation when he scored 63 points in the AAU junior nationals, breaking the tournament record held by Chris Webber and Patrick Ewing.

"Danny's got great hands and a great touch around the goal," Huggins said. "He catches everything that comes his way. As good as Danny is on offense, though, he still has a lot of things he needs to get better at."

The wide body that Fortson uses to shield defenders isn't particularly suited to the frenetic defensive pressure that Huggins' most successful teams have employed.

"This is the first time I've ever played defense in my life," Fortson said.

"It seems like I got in foul trouble every night out earlier in the season, but I'm moving my feet better and I'm able to understand the defensive concepts a lot more. I've played my way into shape, and I feel more comfortable with every game."

If Fortson needed remedial work on defense, he arrived at Cincinnati well-versed in low-post play.

"He's got what I call an old man's game," assistant coach Larry Harrison said. "The first day in practice, he was getting the ball, facing the basket and going up. He looked plodding to some of the kids, and they told him that stuff wouldn't last here. But no one has blocked him yet.

"Danny isn't a big jumper, but he likes to bang and shove and put his body on people."

Fortson has been steady since a trip to Hawaii in late December for the Rainbow Classic. He has scored in double figures in 16 of his past 17 games, and raised his field-goal percentage to .578.

Despite averaging fewer than 23 minutes a game -- evidence of the early-season conditioning and foul woes -- Fortson still can break the freshman scoring record set last season by Dontonio Wingfield, now an NBA rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Fortson has been especially strong against Top 25 teams, averaging 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, and he's looking forward to putting a hip on Joe Smith and Keith Booth.

As Fortson has elevated his game, Durden, junior center Art Long and other Bearcats have suffered through some depressing episodes.

In consecutive losses in the Great Midwest Conference to Saint Louis. Memphis and Marquette, Fortson made 55.5 percent of his shots while his teammates slumped to 32.9.

The Bearcats (17-8 overall and 6-3 in the Great Midwest) have seemed aimless of late, but it shouldn't keep them from their seventh straight NCAA tournament under Huggins.

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