The Cincinnati Bearcats are expected to maul opponents this season with speed, tough defense and unstinting effort, thanks largely to coach Bob Huggins's ability to keep his players in line when they step between the lines. But scratch a Bearcat and you'll find something of a rebel underneath: a Runnin' Rebel.
Six years ago, when the juniors and seniors who compose Cincinnati's nucleus were impressionable ninth-and 10th-graders, Jerry Tarkanian's plunderers at UNLV ruled the land. That's why you'll hear a common refrain when you sound out these Bearcats, who are SI's No. 1 team for 1996-97. Listen:
"I'd have gone to UNLV if Tark was still there," says 6'7" forward Ruben Patterson, the top junior college transfer in the nation and one of the reasons the Bearcats' prospects are so promising even though they have only two of last year's starters coming back.
Another juco import, 6'2" point guard Charles Williams, liked more than just Cincinnati's Vegas-red uniforms when he was checking out four-year schools. "I loved the way UC pressed and ran and the way coach Huggins kept the players intense," says Williams, who played at Chaffey College outside L.A. for Tarkanian's son George. "They reminded me of the old UNLV teams, and I always wanted to play for UNLV."
"I always talk to Coach about those UNLV teams." adds 6'5" senior guard Damon Flint, a product of Cincy's Woodward High. "We have a similar team this year."
The Queen City will never be mistaken for Las Vegas, of course. Sin in Cincinnati scarcely extends beyond those first two syllables. But the parallels between UNLV circa 1990 and the Bearcats since then are many. "We're just a modern-day form of UNLV," Bearcats junior forward Danny Fortson says with a nod. "Similar, but not there yet." Yet one can make the case that Cincinnati is already there in a number of significant respects:
•Transfers and jucos: When he arrived to take over the Bearcats in 1989, Huggins didn't intend for his program to be a refuge for junior college imports and retreads from other four-year schools, the way Tarkanian's Boys Town in the Desert was from 1973-74 until 1991-92, when Tark was finally forced to resign from UNLV. But soon after landing at Cincy, Huggins sidled up to an influential AAU coach to inquire about signing some of his blue-chip high school-age prospects. "Good pitch," Huggins remembers being told. "Keep coming around, and in two or three years you'll get one of our players." Huggins decided that unless he looked elsewhere for talent, he'd be fired before two or three years were up. Now he has found that juco transfers are a better lit for his clipboard-as-cudgel courtside manner. Most of the Bearcats play with the urgency that comes when half of one's college career has already been whiled away on some tumbleweed-strewn community college campus. "Jucos can be more mature than freshmen," Huggins says. "They're hungrier and more appreciative. They've ridden 10 hours in a van and eaten cheese sandwiches and ridden 10 hours back. And if you recruit a really good high school player, you're only going to keep him two years anyway."
Indeed, during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons, when Huggins had a core of jucos and transfers, Cincinnati won 56 games and reached the Final Four that first season and the Elite Eight the second. Over the next two seasons, when Huggins added McDonald's All-Americas Flint, Fortson and Dontonio Wingfield, the Bearcats won 12 fewer games and failed to reach a regional final. The lesson seems to be that a hungry Bearcat hunts best.
•A let-bygones-be-bygones philosophy: As long as a young man is talented enough on the basketball court, the Cincinnati administration will, Vegas-like, enroll him despite untoward incidents in his past. For instance, the Los Angeles Lakers' Nick Van Exel, a guard on the Bearcats' 1992 Final Four team, allegedly kicked an unconscious teammate during a fight and roughed up a girlfriend (SI, April 29, 1996) while at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, but he was welcome at Cincinnati. Art Long, a forward whose eligibility ran out last season, had problems at Dodge City (Kans.) Community College that included a conviction for selling marijuana to an undercover cop. And Wingfield, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, was arrested back home in Albany, Ga., right before he enrolled at Cincinnati. He got into a heated argument with his mother, Gloria, who refused to give him the keys to her car, and then trashed her kitchen and kicked two police officers summoned to the scene. Wing-held ended up pleading guilty to two counts of misdemeanor obstruction and one count of criminal trespassing.
•A new tradition: In the late 1950s and early '60s Cincinnati produced Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman and. alter those two Hall of Famers moved up to the NBA, won two national titles using a grinding defensive style. But none of that history means much to a generation that doesn't know the difference between World B. Free and a Utopian movement. Huggins has given the program a new national reputation. His methods turn oil some blue-chippers but resonate profoundly with other recruits. "The Cincinnati player," Fort-son calls the latter type. "There are very few like us, trust me." Pressed, Fortson mentions Otis Hill of Syracuse, B.J. Flynn of Louisville, Marc Jackson of Temple and "them two Puerto Rican guys at UMass" (Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso). But there aren't many at "those big-name schools that are glorified," Fortson says with a you-know-which-ones arch of the eyebrows. "They couldn't play here. Men come through here." Huggins is responsible for that, which brings us to the last similarity between Cincinnati and UNLV.