By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Bob Huggins wasn't making any promises.
Not long after his University of Cincinnati Bearcats had been dumped from the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Gonzaga last March, the UC coach was asked about the team's prospects for 2003-04.
Yes, he acknowledged, he had a talented recruiting class coming in, but until he saw them in practice, he wouldn't know what to expect.
He's about to find out.
The Bearcats, coming off a 17-12 season, their worst in 14 years under Huggins, will take the floor for Midnight Madness at Shoemaker Center just after midnight Saturday with a recruiting class that has been ranked as high as No. 3 nationally and determined to wipe away the bitter taste of last year's season.
Who will play point guard?
Chadd Moore showed flashes of brilliance at the point as a freshman last year, especially in transition offense, but he was suspect defensively and was not considered a good practice player, which carries a lot of weight with Huggins. Junior college transfer Nick Williams, at 6-3, may be the answer, but he played shooting guard in junior college.
How will the Bearcat players and coaches react to a subpar season that saw their string of Conference USA regular-season titles end at seven?
UC AT A GLANCE
Coach: Bob Huggins (349-112, 15th year; 517-184 overall).
2002-03: Finished 17-12. Lost to Gonzaga in first round of NCAA Tournament. Lost: Leonard Stokes, Taron Barker, Rod Flowers, Derek Hollman.
Gained: Robert Whaley, Nick Williams, James White, Asrangue Souleymane, Mike Pilgrim.
Projected starters: Nick Williams (PG), Field Williams (SG), Robert Whaley (C), James White (SF), Jason Maxiell (PF).
Exhibition games: Nov. 1, vs. Northern Kentucky; Nov. 11, vs. EA Sports.
Regular-season opener: Nov. 22, vs. Akron.
Tickets: Call 556-CATS.
A year after suffering a massive heart attack, Huggins is healthy and excited about this season because he knows he has many of the ingredients he was missing last year, starting with a talented big man. He always pushes his players to their limits, but he may do so with a renewed sense of purpose after last season.
Early indications are that the returning players were as frustrated by last season as the coaches. The Bearcats have showed an improved work ethic during pre-season conditioning and seem eager to get started.
Will junior Jason Maxiell live up to the promise he displayed as a freshman?
Because the Bearcats lacked a true center, opposing defenses focused their efforts on Maxiell along the front line, and he had a difficult time adjusting in his first year as a starter last season. With 6-10 junior college transfer Robert Whaley at center this year, Maxiell should find himself with more offensive opportunities.
Will Tony Bobbitt become the outside scoring threat he's supposed to be?
The enigmatic Bobbitt, who left the team for three days last year, had great games (29 points vs. Oregon, 25 vs. Louisville), but for the most part was inconsistent. If he can find the 3-point shooting touch that made him such a coveted recruit two years ago, it would provide a huge boost for this team.
How much will the newcomers help?
Where: Shoemaker Center.
Doors open: 10 p.m. autograph session at 10:30. UC will take the floor seconds after midnight.
Highlights: The program will include a dunk contest and other skills exhibitions as well as performances by the UC cheerleaders, dance team and band. The men's team will conduct a 20-minute scrimmage.
Whaley, a two-time junior college All-American, averaged 16.9 points and 7.7 rebounds last year with 54 blocked shots and should be a force right away for the Bearcats.
Nick Williams is a tough kid with great quickness and an accurate shot and may be the starting point guard.
James White may be the most entertaining of the newcomers because of his leaping ability, but the Florida transfer and McDonald's All-American is not regarded as a great outside shooter. He will likely start at small forward.
When is White going to be eligible?
White will be eligible to play on Dec. 20 against Middle Tennessee State.
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