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 Bearcats.
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" swing-man 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.