Sunday, January 31, 1999

UC looks for more from Martin




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Kenyon Martin has to be coaxed. On defense, he is a holy terror. On offense, he can be wholly timid.

        If he is to carry the University of Cincinnati basketball team to a championship, it may take some prodding.

        “We don't get the ball to him enough,” Bearcat coach Bob Huggins said Saturday. “And he doesn't command it enough.”

        With his perimeter shooting in a prolonged slump, and his tournament experience telling him open looks will soon be in short supply, Huggins has cast his discerning eyes on his inside game. What he sees is passivity. What he wants is production. What he has is Martin, a nimble 6-foot-8 center better known for swatting ill-considered shots into the seats.

        This leaves Huggins that rarest of coaching challenges: Persuading a star player to shoot. Imagine an Oscar-winning actor content to serve as an extra.

        “If they get it to me, I try to do what I can do,” Martin said after Saturday's 73-60 conquest of Alabama-Birmingham. “But you don't have to score to be a great basketball player. You can do other things and be a great basketball player. Look at Dennis Rodman. Defense wins championships.”

        Martin's defense, to date, has been sufficient to enable the Bearcats to win 20 of their first 21 games, to rise to fifth in the national polls, to contemplate spring break in St. Petersburg at the Final Four. Yet since their lone loss at North Carolina-Charlotte, the 'Cats have shot only 28 percent from three-point range over the last five games. They have grown more reliant on layups and stickbacks. They have needed more from Martin.

        Saturday, he supplied it, scoring 14 points, seizing 15 rebounds, blocking four shots and earning five assists. It was probably his best-balanced effort since Dec. 19, when he dazzled Las Vegas like a one-man Rat Pack. Without him, UC's post-Xavier lethargy might have resulted in a loss.

        “He was ready to play and a lot of us weren't ready,” said UC guard Melvin Levett, whose own lack of inspiration led to a prolonged first-half benching. “Kenyon did a great job of getting everybody alive emotionally out there.”

        True to form, Martin initially deferred to his scattershooting teammates on the offensive end. He did not score his first points until the game was in its 12th minute and after the Bearcats had missed 15 of their first 19 shots. But when the game was decided, midway through the second half, Martin's fingerprints were on every possession.

        During the 41/2 minutes in which UC stretched its lead from six to 12 points, Martin had eight points, an assist and blocked a shot. He hit a bank shot from the lane, a turnaround jumper and then followed a missed shot with an astonishing feat of agility.

        Martin may have miscalculated the carom, or mistimed his leap, but he was able to reach back over his head in mid-air, grab the ball in his right hand, and then jam it through the hoop in one fluid, jaw-dropping motion. If you get him the ball, he knows where it's supposed to go.

        “People don't think Kenyon has offensive skills, but he really does,” Huggins said. “When we've needed him, he's hit them (shots) ... As long as we're winning, he'll let the other guys score. It's like, "When we need it, we'll get it in there and I'll get something done.'”

Martin not selfish
        Martin raised his season scoring average to 10.9 points per game Saturday, but it's plain this is not his priority. Earlier this month, he saw fit to shoot only twice from the field in successive games against DePaul and Southern Mississippi.

        “Thank God (our big men) are a little bit more patient than Art Long and Danny Fortson,” Levett said, referring to ball-oriented former teammates. “If those guys didn't get the ball, you'd get punched in the face after the game.”

        For all his abundant gifts, Kenyon Martin can't play the prima donna. He claims to have no ego and credits his mother, Lydia, for a team-first home environment. Chores were posted on the refrigerator, and they were rotated so that even the basketball star was obliged to take out the garbage.

        “I was raised,” Kenyon Martin said, “to never be selfish.”

        Getting him to shoot could be a tough sell.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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