CINCY'S TOWER OF POWER
Cincinnati forward Danny Fortson smiled wearily as he sat in the
tiny visitors' locker room of creaky Cincinnati Gardens on Jan.
17, after the then third-ranked Bearcats had hung on to beat a
too-young Xavier team 99-90 in one of the last of college
basketball's great intracity rivalries. While his teammates
spewed cliches about respecting all their opponents and giving
100% every time out, Fortson refused to join that inane chorus.
"No way did I want to lose to Xavier," he said. "If there's one
game you don't lose at Cincinnati, it's against Xavier. Lose to
Xavier, we hear about it all year. I didn't even want to think
about having to put up with that."
Fortson had just made certain that he wouldn't have to put up
with anything by scoring 40 points and grabbing 17 rebounds,
both career highs. He may be only a sophomore and not yet 20
years old, but on an experienced, talent-rich team, he is the
man in charge. "Next to him on the court, everyone looks like a
kid," says junior guard Damon Flint of the 6'7", 260-pound
Fortson. "If you don't guard him exactly right, forget it."
Teams have tried just about everything to stop Fortson this
season. Xavier coach Skip Prosser, for example, double-teamed
him in the post after Fortson had scored 19 first-half points.
Fortson patiently kicked the ball out to Flint and junior guard
Darnell Burton, who combined to hit 6 for 6 from three-point
range. When the Musketeers tried to quicken the pace late in the
game, Fortson overwhelmed them inside. "Once he catches it down
there, it's two points," Prosser said after Xavier lost. "He
either scores or you foul him."
Fortson's emergence is hardly a surprise. After Cincinnati won a
recruiting battle with Michigan and Massachusetts for him,
Fortson averaged 15.1 points per game as a freshman. But at the
end of the season, he told Bearcats coach Bob Huggins that he
felt as if he had been pushed around inside and had to get
stronger. "He knew what he needed to do to get better," Huggins
says. "He worked all summer in the weight room, and he worked on
improving his footwork. He's stronger and more mobile now.
That's a pretty good combination."
Fortson went from a strong 245 pounds to an immovable 260. Yet
he appears light on his feet, runs the floor well on the
Cincinnati fast break and can step outside and shoot the jumper.
"He has great offensive skills," Huggins says, "but he's still
learning to play the whole game."
Even though Cincinnati was 12-1 after Sunday night's 70-68 upset
loss at Alabama-Birmingham, Huggins often sounds mournful when
talking about how these Bearcats can't play defense the way his
1992 Final Four team did. He was so disturbed by their inability
to stop Xavier in the second half, when the Musketeers cut a
17-point deficit to six in the last six minutes, that he kept
the locker room door shut for 15 minutes after the game. "I'm
not a believer in the theory that you learn by losing," he says.
"You make mistakes when you win, and you should be able to learn
from them, too."
Some of Huggins's players have made mistakes that have nothing
to do with basketball. Starting center Art Long, who attended
three junior colleges before enrolling at Cincinnati, pleaded no
contest to a charge of selling marijuana to an undercover police
officer while at Dodge City (Kans.) Junior College in 1993. Last
spring Long and Fortson were involved in a bizarre incident with
a mounted policeman that ended with Long's being charged for
assault--on the horse. He was later acquitted, but that didn't
stop two Xavier fans from showing up for last week's game in a
horse costume. Long also had a domestic-violence charge against
him dropped last fall when he agreed to undergo counseling.
And then there's Burton, who was supposed to sit out the season
after "violating athletic department rules" last spring.
According to published reports, that violation was a positive
result for marijuana in a random drug test. But this fall the
Cincinnati administration amended its substance abuse policy,
reducing the penalty for a first-time offense from a whole
season to 10% of a season. That meant Burton had to sit out four
games--two exhibitions and routs of Wyoming and North
Carolina-Wilmington. "I learned my lesson," says Burton.
The Bearcats continue to learn on the court, too. Xavier, which
starts three freshmen, threw everything it had at Cincinnati in
the second half, but the Bearcats did what they do best down the
stretch: They got the ball to Fortson. "If it's close, you want
an open layup or the ball in Danny's hands," Flint said. "His
touching it is just about as good as the open layup."
Fortson is, after all, the go-to guy, money in the bank, the
step-up guy, the main man....
THE LAST RAID
This is the final season in the 81-year history of the Southwest
Conference, four of whose schools will join the Big Eight next
season. One of the four, Texas Tech, is hoping to leave the
Southwest in style. The Red Raiders, who last week were ranked
in the Top 25 for the first time since 1985, stayed unbeaten in
conference play with a 95-76 win over Houston last Saturday,
raising their overall record to 14-1, the best start in Red
Raiders history. All of this has been achieved by a team whose
coach, James Dickey, didn't have a guaranteed parking spot a
couple of years ago and whose star, Jason Sasser, was nicknamed
O.C., as in Out of Control.
Dickey, 41, was an assistant on the Kentucky coaching staff that
was canned after the 1988-89 season because the Wildcats had
gotten into trouble with the NCAA. He was out of coaching for a
year and then was hired as an assistant on Gerald Myers's staff
at Texas Tech for the 1990-91 season. Dickey got his first shot
at being a head coach when Myers was forced out after that year.
Just in case Dickey got carried away with his new status, the
city of Lubbock was there to humble him. His assigned parking
space outside the Municipal Coliseum was next to a dumpster.
Often, sanitation workers would leave the empty dumpster sitting
in Dickey's space.
Dickey took that slight in stride and has built a solid team.
Last year, after tying Texas for the regular-season title, the
Raiders lost the conference tournament final to the Longhorns in
OT and missed out on an NCAA bid despite a 20-9 record.
But this year, with four seniors back, Texas Tech looks like a
lock for the NCAAs. The best of those seniors is Sasser, a 6'7"
forward who had so much trouble handling the ball at times in
his first couple of years in Lubbock that Red Raider broadcaster
Jack Dale started calling him O.C. Now O.C. is I.C. more often,
and the results have been impressive. Aided in part by the
improved outside shooting of Koy Smith and Cory Carr, Sasser had
scored in double figures in 77 of his last 78 games through
Sunday. "We're more balanced this year," Dickey said. "That
should help Jason down the stretch."
Former Colorado coach Joe Harrington resigned last week after
five-plus years in Boulder, taking with him a reputation as
perhaps "too nice" a guy, one whose players walked all over him.
That doesn't sound as if it will be a problem for his successor,
Ricardo Patton, a Colorado assistant who was named interim
coach. Last Friday evening, before the Buffaloes were to face
Big Eight power Kansas the next day, Patton had his troops watch
Glory, the Civil War movie about a unit of black soldiers who
marched into battle and perished together. Then Patton had his
players spend the night sleeping on cots on the basketball floor
at the Coors Events Center. The Buffs put up a valiant effort
before succumbing 80-78, eliciting this reaction from Patton: "I
don't accept moral victories. I told our guys that in the game
of life, there is a first place and a second place. And second
place is dead."
Pity the poor folks who came out in high winds and rain for
Maine's home game against New Hampshire last Friday night in
Orono. The game was about to tip off at 7:30 when the power went
out in Alfond Sports Arena, delaying the start by an hour and 16
minutes. Then the game went to four overtimes. It was just after
11:30 when the visitors finally put away the Black Bears
106-103. But that wasn't the longest game Maine coach Rudy
Keeling ever saw. He was an assistant coach at Bradley in 1981,
when the Braves went an NCAA-record seven OTs in a loss to
Cincinnati.... Quote of the week: Kentucky coach Rick Pitino
after his Wildcats' astonishing 129-97 rout of Louisiana State,
which included an 86-42 margin at halftime: "Our blocking out
could've been better."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Fortson made sure he wouldn't have to take any guff from his crosstown rivals at Xavier. [Danny Fortson]COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER The Raiders' once erratic Sasser has gone from O.C. to A-O.K. [Jason Sasser]