Since Bob Huggins' third season at Cincinnati in 1991-92, when the Bearcats ended a 15-year NCAA tournament drought and advanced to the Final Four, you could safely pencil in UC for 20 victories and a postseason berth.
But as the '04-05 season approaches -- Cincinnati's last in Conference USA before moving to the Big East -- nothing can be taken for granted. Huggins was suspended in mid-June following his arrest on drunken driving charges, leaving associate head coach Dan Peters in charge of the program. Peters, however, resigned in late July to take a position on Thad Matta's staff at Ohio State. The school then turned to former UC great Oscar Robertson to serve as the Bearcats' interim coach.
Huggins returned to the team in late August, but Cincinnati basketball is clearly in a state of flux.
The Bearcats haven't had a player drafted by an NBA team since All-American Steve Logan in '02 and have failed to get past the second round of the NCAA tournament in seven of the past eight years.
FRONTCOURTSenior forward Jason Maxiell has been a solid performer for the Bearcats for the past three years, but he has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived at Cincinnati. At 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, Maxiell is strong and an excellent leaper, but he's too small to dominate inside. He learned to put the ball on the floor and extend his shooting range last year, but he still can't carry a team offensively.
Robert Whaley, a 6-10 center, was supposed to complement Maxiell up front upon his arrival last year from Barton County (Kans.) Community College. But Whaley was a huge disappointment, and his Bearcat career ended prematurely. (He has transferred to Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, where he will play his senior season.)
James White, an athletic 6-7 leaper, returns at small forward but must improve his rebounding skills, his consistency and his outside shot. Armein Kirkland, a 6-8 junior, shows flashes of brilliance and has the talent to become an outstanding player. He, too, was slowed last year by a knee injury.
Eric Hicks, a 6-7 post player, is a strong offensive rebounder who could be a consistent scorer if he expands his shooting range.
BACKCOURTForced to use both White and Kirkland at point guard late last season, the UC coaching staff realized it had a problem. So the coaches went out and signed Jihad Muhammad, a 5-11 junior college point guard who had originally committed to Baylor. Muhammad is expected to give the Bearcats the true point guard they've lacked in recent years. "His ability to penetrate because of his quickness off the dribble is going to free up some guys off the wing," said assistant coach Andy Kennedy.
Junior Chadd Moore, bothered by back problems last year, could be a factor if he stays healthy. Senior Nick Williams, signed a year ago to play the point even though he had never played it before, had trouble making the adjustment. He will return to shooting guard.
Incoming freshman Vincent Banks is being counted on to provide the long-range shooting threat that Field Williams and Tony Bobbitt offered the last few years.
FINAL ANALYSISThis is a team with some issues. With Whaley no longer in the mix, the Bearcats still lack a scoring presence in the middle. Their two best long-range shooters from last year -- Field Williams and Bobbitt -- are gone, and UC will likely begin the season with its third different point guard in three years.
The Bearcats attempted to return to the trapping, pressing, running team they were in the early '90s but abandoned the press when they hit a rough stretch last season. Without a go-to guy up front or a prolific scorer in the backcourt, it's difficult to see them succeeding as strictly a half-court team.