By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Some of the changes are obvious. There's a 6-foot-10 center who can score, more depth, and a slashing, athletic forward waiting in the wings.
But the biggest improvement in this University of Cincinnati basketball team isn't obvious to the naked eye. It has to do with the spirit of camaraderie that last season's 17-12 version lacked.
"We're more together on and off the court," senior guard Field Williams said. "We're hanging out more, doing things together. I think it helps us out. The more you know each other and the more you're around each other, you get a feel for that person and on the court it shows too. Last year, everybody had certain little groups."
UC begins its 15th season under coach Bob Huggins against Akron at 7:05 p.m. today at Fifth Third Arena. The 18th-ranked Bearcats are far from a polished product, but they're brimming with optimism as they attempt to put the problems from last season behind them.
Even Huggins, not known for lavishing praise on his teams until they earn it, talks optimistically about the Bearcats' prospects.
"This team has a chance," said Huggins, who was the head coach at Akron from 1984-89. "We play like we're a young team right now. We don't play hard enough. We don't play through plays. Our understanding of what needs to be done is not very good, but we have the potential to score the ball."
UC will get an early test from an Akron team that has all five starters back from a 14-14 team and is expected to be one of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference. The Bearcats have won 37 straight home openers.
Those close to the UC program say there was sometimes friction over the attempts at leadership that were made by some of the veterans.
"It wasn't the same feeling that we have this year," junior forward Jason Maxiell said.
This year the veterans are helping the younger players, as evidenced by the way Maxiell has taken center Robert Whaley under his wing. Assistant coach Keith LeGree has noticed the difference. There's no carping among the players when they run sprints and one or two of them has trouble keeping up. Instead, they encourage each other to do better.
"I think it's huge, because when you get in a fight, you've got to have everybody on the same page," LeGree said. "Last year they just didn't care about each other as much."
There are still plenty of kinks to work out. The point guard situation is unsettled. The Bearcats haven't rebounded very well in their two exhibition victories and 6-6 forward James White, who's expected to have a major impact, isn't eligible until Dec. 20.
But the UC players are so confident they're not shy about predicting great things for this team.
"In my opinion," Williams said, "I think we should go to the Final Four. Anything less and it'll be a bad season."
Said Maxiell: "I'd say at least the Final Four. That's the least. I feel that in my heart. I see it in everybody's eyes."
Cincinnati vs. Akron
Tipoff: 7:05 p.m. today, Fifth Third Arena (13,176).
Records: UC 0-0, Akron 0-0.
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
TV: Ch. 19.
Coach: Bob Huggins (349-112, 15th season; 517-184 overall).
Coach: Dan Hipsher (99-122, 9th season; 225-167 overall).
*Jeremiah Wood's average is from high school. The others are from last season.
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