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Original Issue

A True Basketball Jones

Swarming Cincinnati takes its cue from the pet piranhas of forward Herb Jones

In case you, like most of the nation, have missed the stunning ascendancy of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who are returning to the Final Four after a 29-year hiatus, you may want to get a clip from guard Tarrance Gibson's home video of the NCAA tournament. "It'll be great," he promises. "We even have a shower scene." Or you could borrow a how-to manual from 38-year-old coach Bob Huggins, who in three years at Cincinnati has imported an entirely new roster that includes eight junior college transfers, installed a trapping defense and instilled a yapping camaraderie. Or you could brush up on the school's glory days of the late 1950s and Oscar Robertson, as forward Terry Nelson has done. "All I thought I knew about Oscar," says Nelson, "was that he was a Laker."

But the best instruction of all might come from spending a few minutes with senior forward Herb Jones, all 6'3½" of him. Jones snaked for 23 points and 13 rebounds in the Bearcats' 88-57 humbling of Great Midwest Conference rival Memphis State in the Midwest Regional final on Sunday in Kansas City. He also blanketed the Tigers' 6'7" sophomore wunderkind, Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, who scored but 12 points in the game, 5.5 below his average. You would find that while the rest of the Bearcats blast rap through their headsets to motivate them for games, the contemplative Jones favors the more sedate theme from Backdraft and that he has a steadfast policy on goldfish: If one survives for two days among his "posse" of three piranhas, he'll put it in a separate tank and keep it as a pet. So far, tank 2 has remained empty. "One little guy just about did it," Jones says. "He was running from them pretty well, but he missed out by 10 minutes."

Which cuts to the heart of Cincinnati's success: Opponents who drop their guard for even a few minutes are asking to be devoured. In winning 29 games (against four losses) by an average of 16.4 points, the Bearcats fed off a steady diet of debilitating rolls created by Huggins's double-barreled strategy of sending two and often three Cats to the offensive glass—note to Michigan for Saturday's semifinal in Minneapolis: Cincy is 21-0 in games in which it outrebounded opponents—and of unleashing relentless man-to-man and 2-3 matchup defenses. Cincinnati's unique half-court traps, in particular, can be calibrated for maximum confusion. What's it like when the defenses are all working? Says Bearcat guard Anthony Buford, "Layup heaven."

Upon arriving in Cincinnati in 1989 after five seasons at Akron, Huggins found a moribund program: only eight scholarship players, a recent history of NCAA rules violations and a 12-year absence from the Big Show. Among the first recruits Huggins pursued was Jones, one of the top junior college players in the nation, who was averaging 28 points at Butler County (Kans.) Community College. "The ball is like a wand in his hand," says Nelson. In addition to his scoring skills, Jones has also developed into Cincinnati's top defender, the spearhead of their press. "Herb is tenacious," Huggins says. "He goes at you on both ends of the floor." Despite his obvious talents, Jones fits the profile of the typical Huggins recruit: a player with a small enough ego to make personal sacrifices in his playing style and a thick enough skin to weather Huggins's regular tirades. To a man, the Bearcats swear by Coach Hugs, as they call him, even when he's swearing at them. In the locker room at halftime, they've been known to stuff towels in their mouths to stifle themselves in the face of Huggins's nose-to-nose assaults. "With these guys you don't know if it's to stop laughing, stop spitting or stop foaming at the mouth," says forward Erik Martin.

The Bearcats are going to Minneapolis mainly because they stand united. Jones used the word together eight times in one sentence after being named the regional's Most Outstanding Player on Sunday, and the Bearcats are still taking their cues from his trio of piranhas. "They get along well with each other," Jones says, "and they attack together." For the Bearcat posse, there are only two goldfish left in the tank.



More than just a scorer, Jones also buoys his team's relentless D.