Saturday, February 1, 1997
Huggins tries to save season on wane

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bob Huggins had a lot to yell about at Louisville Thursday night.
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Bob Huggins is up to something. Up to his ears in players who don't listen. Up to his old tricks in regaining their attention.

The University of Cincinnati basketball coach has benched his two top scorers for this evening's game against DePaul. If any of the Bearcats were confused about who was boss, the misconception has been clarified.

''We're gonna all get on the same page,'' Huggins said Friday afternoon. ''My page.''

With that solemn vow, Huggins disclosed that his starting forwards will sit out tonight's Conference USA scrimmage at the Shoemaker Center. All-America Danny Fortson and the All-Atmospheric Ruben Patterson will serve one-game suspensions for unspecified infractions and, in so doing, perhaps serve a greater purpose.

The Bearcats are not the juggernaut some of us supposed in preseason, certainly not the No. 1 team in the nation. Thursday's 81-70 loss in Louisville was UC's fourth in 18 games and underscored the shortcomings of a presumed powerhouse with no consistency at point guard.

It was a disturbing game from several standpoints. Unable to bully the smaller Cardinals with their massive bulk and educated elbows, unable to wear them down through superior depth, the Bearcats were left to rely on a half-court offense that often appeared half-baked. Damon Flint and Charles Williams turned the ball over 11 times between them, and had so much difficulty working the ball inside that Fortson was able to get off only nine shots against single coverage.

''Last night was a bad game, probably the worst we've played all year except Temple,'' Fortson said. ''We need to stop having bad games like that.''

A message delivered

Friday's suspensions suggest Huggins still believes the season can be salvaged. Though he said he was not making an ''example'' of Fortson, Huggins did not dispute the notion that the move delivered a message.

To wit: ''They'd better do what they're supposed to do.''

The coach whose discipline risks prompting his best player to turn pro is a man of conviction. Bob Huggins may not have all the answers, but he is darn sure going to make himself heard.

''The attitude has to get better,'' UC guard Damon Flint said. ''When coach tends to yell at the guys, they're blowing him off. That shouldn't be the case. Some of the new guys don't know what he really expects.''

This much is hard to imagine. Bob Huggins is many things, but he is rarely accused of blurred vision. He knows what he wants, and he usually demands it in a voice that can be heard in Venezuela. If he's not getting through to some of his players, it must be because he has already shattered their eardrums with his shouting.

Symbolism and substance

A cynic might suggest that suspending star players against a 3-15 opponent is more a symbolic gesture than a sanction. The Bearcats can probably beat DePaul without Fortson and Patterson, and probably without breaking a sweat.

Yet Huggins did not choose DePaul as the most convenient game to correct his stars. It was simply the first opportunity on the schedule. He has never hesitated to bench star players who ran afoul of his system. Ask Dontonio Wingfield about that.

Given Huggins' mood Thursday night, Fortson and Patterson might regard their sentences as light. During his postgame press conference in Louisville, Huggins said the game showed why college coaches should be allowed to trade their players. He joked that he would like to trade some of his players to upcoming opponents.

''I think he might want to trade me, too,'' Fortson said Friday. ''I don't knowÇ.Ç.Ç. But that's a good thing about basketball. You get time to work things out. I know we've got tough guys on this team, and they're ready to suck it up. I've got the utmost confidence in my team.''

Fortson's remarks were made before practice, before Huggins announced his suspension. Afterward, he declined interviews.

Huggins was already making progress. If his players aren't talking, they have a better chance to listen.