CINCINNATI – A year ago Bob Huggins was coming off a heart attack, raising questions concerning his ability to coach Cincinnati – a team, it would turn out, that had some very un-Bearcatesque tendencies.
Like not practicing hard. Or playing hard. Or even listening to Huggins when he did return to full health.
"You know," Huggins says, "sometimes last year was like going to the dentist's chair."
What a difference a year makes.
UC's practices on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning were more than intense and difficult and valuable. They were fun.
So forget last season, when UC went 17-12, ending an 11-year, 23-wins-or-more stretch and failing to win the Conference USA title for the first time in the history of the league.
This is the old Bearcat program: big, fast, tough and oh-so talented. And there is Huggins, healthy and happy, barking at his players, demanding more and getting it with each practice.
Which means UC is going to be good this year. Real good.
"We are bigger, we are stronger, we are faster," said Huggins while seated courtside at the Shoemaker Center. "They are playing hard. It is kind of fun again. And we are going to go back to the way we used to play, which is fun. It is a lot harder but it is fun."
A fantastic recruiting class, namely junior college stars Nick Williams and Robert Whaley, has changed the face of the program. Florida transfer James White will be eligible at midseason.
Returning players Jason Maxiell, Eric Hick and Armein Kirkland are not only better, but also determined that last season's weak work ethic will never happen again.
Huggins calls it having "everyday players" – guys who want to work everyday.
"Last year I had once-a-week players," he said.
The players don't disagree. As grueling as their first week of work has been – and Huggins gets after it like few others – there is a sense of excitement.
"Really it is not even about how much talent we have. It is about our team coming together and that is something we are doing a lot better this year," said Kirkland, a 6-foot 8-inch sophomore. "We are just having more team chemistry and looking out for each other.
"Everybody is ready to play. The returning guys have the mindset that we are going to come out and play hard everyday, and that sets the example to the young guys. And they are just following right behind."
For Huggins, this is what a basketball team is supposed to look like. He loves thick, bruising big men who can do a number of different things well. Combine that with smart, fast guards and a high-flying wing or two and it is a recipe that has delivered a .738 career winning percentage.
But it all starts with hard work and that means practice. Six days a week UC will go at least three hours, Huggins churning up the intensity with each passing minute. Mistakes are immediately pointed out and corrected. Everything here is macho.
takes tough kids and then out-toughs them.
"No welfare here," Huggins likes to shout.
"I think playing hard is a learned skill," he said. "I don't think it is a natural thing. I think you have to teach guys to do that. And we fought through that a year ago. Now you can go coach basketball. If you are spending every day fighting with them to play hard then that is what you are doing – you aren't coaching basketball.
"We can make a whole lot more improvement playing basketball because we can coach them now."
Cincinnati made the Final Four in 1992, led by Nick Van Exel. In 2000 the Bearcats were the nation's best team during the regular season only to have Kenyon Martin snap his ankle on the eve of the NCAA tournament.
Two years later Huggins milked 31 wins out of a moderately talented team, but that crew never was a real threat to win it all.
This one is.
"I think we can win the championship," Kirkland said. "That is my goal and I don't think we should settle for anything less."
Huggins believes the pieces for a Final Four run are in place. But it takes more than talent. One good week of work is just the start.
But at least this is fun. Big fun combined with big potential.
What a difference a year makes.
- Bob Huggins