Team preview: Cincinnati

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2005-06 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 17, 2005, 6:34 PM ET
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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Andy Kennedy doesn't have any time to be philosophical. Ask him about his feelings on how he ascended to the top spot in the Cincinnati hoop program, and he offers little in the way of profound statements.

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"It is what it is," he says.

His response may not go down with Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," but it is an accurate representation of the UC situation and the blunt assessment of a man preoccupied with holding together a team, rather than offering pithy quotations.

Kennedy's pragmatism came in the wake of as surreal a stretch of time as was ever endured by a basketball program. During the span of three days, former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins went from a man expected to spend at least the next two seasons directing the team he built into a national player to the unemployment line. Although he was well compensated upon his departure, Huggins lost a high-stakes poker game with Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher, who determined that the coach was no longer the man she wanted directing her school's highest-profile athletic endeavor.

On Aug. 23, university lawyers drafted a lengthy letter to Huggins, detailing the institution's stance on his employment status. In it, Cincinnati maintained that it had no interest in extending Huggins' contract beyond its two-year life span. Further, because Huggins was fighting for more time, the school thought it proper that he be removed from his position. The ultimatum was clear: resign and receive about $3 million in salary and benefits or be fired and get closer to $2 million. No dummy, Huggins resigned.

While pundits debated Zimpher's move, Kennedy was installed as interim coach and given the challenge of preparing UC for life in the Big East. Many had expected Kennedy to become a head coach one day -- and a successful one at that -- but few could have imagined his initial assignment would come amid such upheaval. Even he seemed a bit stunned by the whole thing.

"We're all in uncharted waters," he said. "I never in a million years would have dreamed this could happen, at least from a timing standpoint."

Kennedy had little time to pinch himself or ponder the situation, because Huggins' departure created a crisis in the program. Returning players questioned whether they wanted to remain. Newcomers debated moving to other situations. And recruits still in high school -- most notably highly-regarded guard O.J. Mayo -- began to wonder whether they should be considering Cincinnati at all. Huggins may have engendered considerable contempt from those outside (and some inside) the program, but there was little arguing with his on-court record. Cincinnati won big with him in charge, and that created interest among players.

The off-court situation was another story. Under Huggins, Cincinnati had developed a reputation as a something of an outlaw program. Players ran afoul of the law. The program had a poor graduation rate, despite recent (successful) efforts to improve it. Forward Roy Bright, a regular on last year's team, was dismissed on May 10 for possessing a firearm on campus. That's some heavy stuff. Zimpher's decision, ultimately, was made with the school's reputation in mind. No matter how much the Bearcats won, they couldn't escape the perception that they were doing it in a way that made the institution itself look bad.

That's all over now. Zimpher won her battle, and barring a lawsuit from the Huggins camp, will move forward with Kennedy in chargeat least for now. There's no telling what happens after the season. He may stay on, or he could be replaced by a candidate chosen from among a pool of applicants found during a national search. Again, Kennedy doesn't have much time to worry about that.

"My immediate concern is the returning players and players signed to play for coach Huggins," he said. "Can we keep it intact, so that we have a chance? I'm realistic enough to know they're not going to give us a year off."

Nope, there are no mulligans in big-time basketball. So, the Bearcats press on, as best they can. Complicating matters is the school's semester system, in which fall classes did not start until Sept. 21. So, instead of having his players -- old and new -- report to campus in late August, as most coaches do, Kennedy had to spend the better part of a month trying to convince his new charges that playing for him wasn't all that bad. With about two weeks left before the start of classes, all Kennedy could say was that "a majority" of the six newcomers would be wearing red-and-black in '05-'06 and beyond.

PLAYERS

The good news is that four key performers from last year are expected to be in uniform and making significant contributions for the Bearcats. All four are seniors, and each averaged double-figure points in '04-'05. It begins with 6-6, 240-pound senior forward Eric Hicks (13.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.3 bpg, .519 FG), who comprised one-half of the team's power plant last year with Jason Maxiell. The big question about Hicks is whether he can go it alone inside, or at least without Maxiell. One newcomer who could have helped, junior college transfer Ivan Johnson, asked out of his scholarship and enrolled at Oregon.

"Eric turned the corner last year, and he's coming off a gold-medal experience on the World University Games team," Kennedy said. "That was educational for him. He will be the emotional leader of the team and should put up good numbers for us. But we need him to increase from last year."

Hicks' biggest challenge will be dealing with the double teams that come his way, now that Maxiell has moved on. He can help his cause greatly by improving his free throw shooting, which topped out at 58.5 percent last year.

He'll need help from two new faces up front.

Abdul Herrera is a 6-10, 250-pound freshman who signed early with the Bearcats and averaged 19.4 points, 15.9 rebounds and 5.0 blocks last year at South Miami (Fla.) Senior High School. He isn't expected to be a major contributor as a freshman, because he needs to become acclimated to the intensity of Cincinnati basketball, which certainly isn't going to change under Kennedy.

"He needs to be prepared for the every day business of being on a Top-25 program," Kennedy said.

Still, the Panama native does bring good size and skills to the equation and will be looked to for about 10-15 minutes a night.

An unexpected surprised showed up on Kennedy's doorstep in September, when former Xavier (La.) center Ronald Allen fled flood-ravaged New Orleans, where his school was under water and his season was in jeopardy. The 6-9 Allen called to see what his options where and contacted Kennedy. Cincinnati administrators think Allen has a good chance of being eligible right away because Xavier is an NAIA school.

"I get a lot of crazy calls," Kennedy told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "'My son can play and he's eight feet tall.' To get a call like that, really I didn't start pursing it because I didn't think it was real."

Kennedy talked to recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons and decided to take a chance on Allen, who averaged 4.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in 19 games as a reserve last season. How much he can help remains to be seen, but Allen came in and enthusiastically embraced the Bearcats' strength and conditioning program.

The fourth post man should be 6-7, 225-pound junior Cedric McGowan, who averaged 15.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists last year at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College. The Miami native played at Northwestern High School and is tough enough to become a full-fledged Bearcat bruiser. He can play a little bit on the wing, but has the ability to score well inside.

The Bearcat frontcourt doesn't end with just the big fellas. Kennedy will have good depth and versatility on the wing, too. A pair of returnees, James White and Armein Kirkland, leads the way.

Kennedy calls White (10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.1 apg), a 6-7 senior, Cincinnati's "best perimeter defender." But White can score, too. He shot well from the field and hit some threes (.383). He's also a strong free-throw shooter (.798). But don't expect White to have a breakout season, at least not statistically.

"He's going to be asked to make the most sacrifices of anybody on the team," Kennedy said. "Because he has such a good basketball IQ and is such a good passer, he'll have to sacrifice. He could score 15, 16 or 17 points a game, but that won't necessarily be in the best interest of the team."

Kirkland (10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg), a 6-8 senior, showed signs of becoming a big-time scorer last season. But his flashes of dominance were tempered by periods of struggle. Kirkland shot just 37.2 percent from the field, a number that must go up.

"He had some binges last year, but he's got to be more efficient," Kennedy said. "He has to rebound more, too."

The final forward is 6-6 freshman DeAndre Coleman, who averaged 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was chosen to the Class 5A all-state team and scored 20 points in the Atlanta All-Star Classic. Coleman can play on the wing and inside but needs to develop his ball handling and shooting to become more than an undersized four man.

The backcourt situation is interesting, if only because the Bearcats have three point men who like to score. That they prefer to shoot in varying degrees will allow Kennedy to mix them in several different combinations. Leading the way is 5-11 senior Jihad Muhammad (10.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.7 apg). He fits into the Cincinnati legacy of scoring points that includes Nick Van Exel.

"His efficiency has to go up," Kennedy said. "I thought he had a great year last year, but he hasn't scratched the surface. Typically with junior-college kids, they make a big jump from year one to year two. His numbers may not reflect it, but his performance will increase."

Muhammad shot just 37.1 percent from the field last year, a number that must increase. He'll get a chance to shoot more -- and more accurately -- throughout the year, because he'll be playing the two spot at times, opposite either Devan Downey or Domonick Tilford, two freshmen.

The 5-10 Downey averaged 36.9 points 4.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists last year at Chester (S.C.) High School. He is dynamite in the open floor and doesn't seem to understand that he's just 5-11.

"He is an Allen Iverson type who has an ability to score well for a little guy in traffic," Kennedy said. "He needs to be more consistent from the perimeter, though." The 5-11 Tilford is more of a pure point who averaged 20.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists at Jeffersontown High School in Louisville last year and was chosen Mr. Basketball in Kentucky. He could be found between Muhammad and Downey this year on a pint-sized but lethal perimeter.

The final guard is 5-11 sophomore Ryan Patzwald, who averaged 0.8 points and 0.2 rebounds last year in 23 appearances (59 total minutes) last season.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: C+
FRONTCOURT: B
INTANGIBLES: B-

This will be one of the most challenging seasons in Cincinnati basketball history. Even if Kennedy has a full complement of players at his disposal, he will be operating from a deficit, given the body blow the program absorbed when Huggins was fired. Although it could be the right move in the long run, it could bring some immediate pain, particularly because the Bearcats have already been scheduled by the Big East as a powerhouse club and will face Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia twice.

The four returnees provide a strong nucleus, but they must remain healthy and productive or the Bearcats are in deep trouble. Hicks has the talent to make big contributions, but he must do so now without the protection of Maxiell. Instead, he'll be the bodyguard for Herrera and Johnson. And while Coleman and McGowan have potential, neither can be counted on for more than supporting contributions.

The small backcourt is talented, but opponents will enjoy taking on the sub six-footers on the defensive end. When the Bearcats have the ball, someone must emerge as a reliable, willing distributor, and all three have to be more accurate when shooting.

Cincinnati can be an NCAA Tournament team. It can definitely be a top five or six program in the Big East. But there is no guarantee the Bearcats can overcome the Huggins firing and continue its recent tradition of winning 20-plus games a year. If it does, there is no doubt Kennedy deserves the head coaching job on a full-time basis.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).

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