Wednesday, November 10, 1999

UC's Martin shoots for stars

Bearcats center chases Wooden Award

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The other day, Kenyon Martin got a good, long look at the list of guys nominated for the John R. Wooden Award. It is one of many trophies presented to college basketball's player of the year, but the only one with an expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for the five leading vote-getters.

        Martin saw his name, which he knew was on there, but when he scanned over the other 24 finalists identified by the Wooden committee, what stood out was no one stood out. He recognized he belonged.

        “It's up in the air, so I've got a legitimate shot of winning,” said Martin, Cincinnati's 6-9 senior center. “There's no Elton Brand people are hyping up. There's no Richard Hamilton. No Wally (Szczerbiak).

        “It's a legitimate shot for me. So if I just put my mind to it, do what I set my mind to do, I can go to California, be one of those five that they call.”

        This is precisely how coach Bob Huggins wants Martin to think, which may be why that list ended up before Martin's eyes nearly three months after its release. Huggins insists it was not a psychological ploy. It worked, anyway.

        Martin could have been in the NBA right now. He could have departed UC one year ahead of schedule. But he did not return for his senior season with the idea of winning the Best Supporting Oscar. He returned for a starring role.

        “We're going to throw him the ball. We're going to throw it to him a lot,” Huggins said. “He will shoot it.”

        Through three seasons, the only boundaries to Martin's achievements were established by his own imagination. He contented himself with small

        successes. He declined to actively pursue greatness.

        He is a career 60 percent shooter who doesn't even attempt a half-dozen shots a game.

        He is a two-time Conference USA defensive player of the year who blocked only eight shots in his final nine games last season.

        He has had as many as 23 rebounds in a game, but last year reached double figures just once in his last 22 games.

        Martin's junior year statistics: 10.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks. It's not often a team has to plead with a player to shoot, but that happened on occasion with Martin last season.

        “It was just, like, I wanted to do the little things nobody else would do,” Martin said. “I think that kind of hurt us. I guess I was content to average my 10-11 points a game.

        “When he needed me to score, like when we played UNLV and they were in that little zone, I scored 23. And then again against Dayton. But I think there sometimes was a call, and I didn't step up. The majority of the time, I was just being passive.”

        For some gifted young people, this is how it is: They push themselves to succeed and figure that to be enough, even if excellence is within their reach.

        Some eventually realize their potential. This is Martin's promise, now. He will sooner take six shots in a minute than six shots in a game. Huggins sees Martin's burgeoning maturity easing him toward the ac ceptance of greater responsibility.

        In the Bearcats' exhibition opener, Martin shot eight times and made every one. More important, he fired on his first three touches, showing his eagerness to take responsibility for the offense. He had two assists, more than any Bearcat who didn't play point guard, showing he's not going to be a pig about this.

        “Coach tells me I've got to score a little more. He tells me I've got to average 16, 17 points a game — I think I can do that,” Martin said. “Some of the shots I passed up — all I have to do is take those shots now. It's not a problem.”

        The reluctance to thrust himself onto the stage began to fade when Martin joined teammate Pete Mickeal on the United States team that won the World University Games gold medal this summer in Spain.

        They were placed with, among others, Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn of Ohio State, Chris Carrawell of Duke, Kevin Freeman of Connecticut, Brendan Haywood of North Carolina and Mark Madsen of Stanford. Each of those players had been to the Final Four. Martin, though, led the team in scoring and scored 30 percent more than Haywood, the next guy in line.

        “It started in Spain,” Mickeal said. “It was really a time when Ken dominated, took over. That got his confidence going, and a lot of people were saying his offense was getting better, so he came in the gym and worked on it. Now, it's a motivation for him: the offense has got to come through him.”

        The only remaining issue for Martin is whether he would be more productive if allowed to function as a forward, as he was in the World Games. He played mostly with Haywood, a 7-footer, and that gave Martin the freedom to use his quickness to get open and an improving jump shot to score.

        Martin is seeing minor changes in how he is positioned. “But it didn't matter where they got me the ball. If they got it to me, I looked to score,” he said. “I think I can do that here.”

        There were acquaintances of Martin's who wondered why he'd return to UC when he could have been earning $1 million or more in the NBA.

        If he'd gone, though, he would have been chosen toward the middle of the first round, and likely would have been a deep reserve on a middle-of-the-pack team. This is his chance to be special.

        “I'm ecstatic. We've got a legitimate shot of winning this thing,” Martin said. “It's something I wanted to do. It was nobody's decision but mine. I haven't thought about it twice.”


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