Monday, March 10, 1997
Opponent doesn't matter
to Bearcats

No. 3 seed faces Butler Thursday

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There seemed to be no question the day the season began, where the Cincinnati Bearcats would be sitting on this particular Sunday: at the Huggs Inn analyzing their NCAA Tournament draw, with a No. 1 seed.

So there they were, amid the basketball memorabilia and fried onion rings, acting entirely pleased to be planted as a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional and shipped off to The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., for a first-round game against Midwestern Collegiate Conference-champion Butler.

''It doesn't matter. We knew we had a chance to get a two or three,'' said All-American forward Danny Fortson. ''A three seed is fine with us, because we're happy with what's in our bracket.''

Butler. Iowa State or Illinois. Xavier or Vanderbilt or UCLA or, hard as may be to imagine, Charleston Southern. This is the Bearcats' avenue to the regional final, a destination reached by all three of coach Bob Huggins' teams that were seeded third or better.

Should the Bearcats (25-7) make it that far, they may see Minnesota, a team that wound up with the top seed that seemed so likely for UC four months ago.

''If that happens, we've had a pretty good run,'' Huggins said. ''We'll just worry about the first week.''

Butler, a 14th seed with a 23-9 record, quite likely is the least of their concerns.

UC's most significant problems are its own, and they were obvious in Friday's Conference USA semifinal loss to eventual champion Marquette.

''We've got to guard better, but I think we will,'' Huggins said. ''We've got to make shots tougher than we've made them. We gave Marquette way too many good looks.''

The Cincinnati team that dominated opponents on the boards has become a break-even proposition. UC has 107 rebounds in the past three games, two of them losses; the opposition has 107 rebounds.

The situation with the Bearcats' point guard remains unresolved, with junior Charles Williams still not cleared to rejoin the team. Huggins progressed from a ''I'm not going to comment'' regarding the matter to an ''I don't know.''

Huggins would choose to focus on who he knows he'll have at the position, if he knew for certain he had any. Damon Flint's eye inflammation still is bothersome.

''There's no more excuses,'' said forward Ruben Patterson. ''If we lose, we're home. ... I'm going to bust my hump and do what I have to do.''

Huggins views the Detroit-area location for the Bearcats' early round games as ideal, because it is within driving distance of Cincinnati. (Orlando, Fla., Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah were not).

He will not speculate the possibility of the city's two big-time college basketball teams could play in the tournament.

''I just look at who we're playing now,'' Huggins said. ''It's a two-game tournament. I look at the three teams we're possibly going to play. We'll have to play well to advance, but that's the way it always is.''

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MEN'S BRACKET