Sunday, November 24, 1996
Huggins too close for comfort

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Count Bob Huggins among the unconvinced. The head coach of college basketball's top-rated team has thus far been able to justify only a No.3 ranking for his University of Cincinnati Bearcats.

He picked the Kansas Jayhawks No.1 in the preseason coaches poll and then the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest. It was easy to do. He doesn't have to fix their flaws.

''We're always going to look worse to me than other people because I can see all the things we can't do,'' Huggins said on the eve of Saturday's season opener against Western Carolina. ''I don't pay enough attention to Kansas and Wake Forest and Kentucky to see what they can't do. Unless we play 'em.''

Proximity has its perils. While Huggins can see all the wonders of which his team is capable, he also notices its warts. He opens the season openly concerned about his team's relative size and the state of his half-court defense. Until he is satisfied his guys can guard people close to the basket, Huggins is reluctant to implement the full-court pressure that has become one of his trademarks. (The other being screaming.)

Beyond expectations for his Bearcats, though, Huggins' predicament is not much different from that of any other college coach this time of year.

There isn't enough practice time to install every wrinkle you'll want in March in time for Thanksgiving. Consequently, a team's ranking at this point in the season - even its performance - matters much less than the extent of its eventual growth.

UC takes long-range view

Some coaches claim they will take a loss in November in exchange for a victory in March, a conceit that implies that even their pratfalls are part of some brilliant master plan. Huggins does not embrace this idea - ''It's like saying I don't mind throwing a game,'' he said - but his preparations are clearly based on competing down the stretch as opposed to protecting his ranking at the start.

''We're trying to win them all,'' Huggins said. ''That's not going to change. But in the same sense, we're going to try to do things right. We're not going to sacrifice the longevity of the season. We're going to do the things we need to do to be successful throughout the whole year.''

This means integrating unproven players in the offense rather than relying too heavily on the established scoring skills of Danny Fortson and Darnell Burton. (Saturday night, Huggins went 10-deep in the game's first 12 minutes.)

It might mean benching a key player in a close game to send a more lasting message. Huggins is enormously competitive, but he also has an eye on the horizon. In any given game, he has more at stake than the final score.

Teamwork name of his game

''We're trying to master the game,'' he said. ''Mastering the game is five guys playing, not two guys playing, not three guys playing. We're trying to master the game to get better so that we're at some point in time going to be hitting on all our cylinders and everybody is going to be able to do the things that they can do to help us win.

''We could really simplify things now, and make sure that we threw it to Fortson and Burton all the time. We'd probably win more games early, or have a chance to win more games early. But then those other guys, they never really feel comfortable. They never really get into the flow of things. They never get to handle the ball very much. Then, all of a sudden, when somebody takes those (first) two options away and you have to throw it to those other guys, they're not going to be able to respond.''

Being No.1 has its benefits - mainly it means more time on television - but you don't get a trophy for attaining that stature in preseason. It still needs to be proved. Because Bob Huggins does not yet rank his team at the top of the heap does not mean he won't.

''I would,'' he said, ''if we deserve it.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 24, 1996.