BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - If the Cincinnati Bearcats are to play a lot of basketball in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, All-American forward Danny Fortson will have to, first. That may be the simplest element of UC's game plan, but it has rarely been that easy.
Fortson has spent nearly as much energy in his three years with the Bearcats avoiding foul trouble as producing baskets.
The tournament, which opens with the No. 3-seeded Bearcats (25-7) facing the 14th-seeded Butler Bulldogs (23-9) today at 12:30 p.m. at The Palace of Auburn Hills, is supposed to make this less of a burden. The common belief is NCAA games are called more loosely, the players permitted more freedom, the officials less inclined to dictate the flow or the outcome of the game.
UC coach Bob Huggins has coached in 17 tournament games. He ought to know if this perception equals reality. ''No,'' Huggins said. ''I don't think so.''
This is the last opportunity for UC seniors Darnell Burton and Damon Flint - and probably for Fortson, as well - to reach the Final Four. The lot of them can hope their coach is incorrect, and that the trend toward Fortson playing longer in NCAA games continues.
He has managed to play progressively more as his career continued, from an average of 23.5 minutes in two games his freshman season to 32.8 in four games last year.
He fouled out in a 20-minute appearance against Connecticut in the second round of the 1995 tournament, but his only disqualification last season came in the Southeast Regional final loss to Mississippi State. He played 36
minutes in that one, the most of his six tournament games, and picked up late fouls trying desperately to prevent defeat.
''They usually let you play,'' Fortson said. ''I'm not worried about it. You can't sit there and worry about what they're going to call. If they're going to call it close, you've got to be careful.''
Burton said the Bearcats' performance against Marquette, cutting a double-digit second half deficit to four points while Fortson sat with three fouls, gave the team confidence it could play and score in his absence.
The reality is, Fortson's presence in the game is essential for any number of reasons, starting with the obvious fact he leads UC in both points and rebounds. There is more to it, though. The entire structure of their offense has been designed with Fortson's low-post strength in mind.
His presence is intimidating to opponents, who generally fear his muscle or his jumpshot, or both.
Butler coach Barry Collier, whose Bulldogs won the championship of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, quickly dismissed a suggestion that having played Tulane's Jerald Honeycutt earlier in the season might have prepared them for the chore of facing Fortson.
''Cincinnati is a better basketball team than Tulane,'' Collier said. ''They have similar athletes at some positions, but Danny Fortson is unlike anybody we have played. If we hadn't been on spring break, we would have brought in football players to practice against.''
NCAA LETTER LED TO WILLIAMS INQUIRY
WILLIAMS PUNISHED BEFORE TRIAL Daugherty column
HUGGINS TO OSU? A COMMON QUERY
Previous NCAA Tournament stories
MARCH 12 1997
GUARD PROBLEMS PLAGUE BEARCATS
HUGGINS QUOTES GILLEN ON OSU JOB
MARCH 11, 1997
WILLIAMS PREPARES TO START
MARSHALL HAS THE MUSCLE TO CHECK FORTSON
MARCH 10, 1997
UC, XU ON COLLISION COURSE IN SWEET 16
LET FORTSON PLAY, REFS - IT'S HIS TIME Daugherty column
OPPONENT DOESN'T MATTER TO BEARCATS
BUTLER ROSTER HAS LOCAL FLAVOR