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Hicks and Kennedy Brought Order to UC's Tumultuous Season

By Bill Peterson · March 8th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Try remembering the 12 years immediately before Bob Huggins and, if you can't, try to imagine them. On second thought, don't bother. That's probably the best way to remember the University of Cincinnati's basketball program from those days, because so few bothered with it.

If the Bearcats never fell so low as the Bengals pre-Marvin Lewis or the Reds of the past five years, that was just one more reason to ignore them. The Bengals went to two Super Bowls, the Reds mostly contended and the Bearcats succeeded nowhere but in the stale memories of old-timers who couldn't be convinced that college basketball passed UC by.

One wished these batty codgers would wake up and realize 1960 had been away for 25 years, stop pretending UC basketball mattered and try a little harder to apprehend reality. It was like trying to tell Nora Desmond that the actresses in movies talk now. Happily, one could quickly escape these delusional fans of a black-and-white past by jaunting to a real basketball game in Lexington, Louisville, Columbus or Bloomington.

Finally, UC's administration decided that seven losing seasons in 12 years, none of which included an NCAA Tournament, required another coaching change; the next guy couldn't be any worse. From Gale Catlett's 1978 departure with NCAA probation on the way, UC wallowed in five years of Ed Badger and six years of Tony Yates.

As Huggins promised at his introductory press conference that UC would be in the Final Four "soon," many UC fans hedged their hopes. Huggins couldn't know what he walked into. The Bearcats were such a shambles that Huggins and Shoemaker Center debuted on Nov.

25, 1989, with a walk-on from the football team to fill out the starting lineup.

But Huggins changed UC basketball immediately. To the codgers' ever-lasting gratitude, he proved them right and made the skeptics open their eyes. Once a hole in college basketball's geography, Cincinnati became the hub, with all those other nearby universities and major conferences on the periphery.

The Bearcats gave 20th-ranked Minnesota fits that first night at Shoemaker Center. The football player, Steve Sanders, bagged a three-pointer at the buzzer to give UC a 66-64 victory.

Within three seasons, the Bearcats entered the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in 29 years. The Bearcats haven't missed an NCAA Tournament since. Within Huggins' first seven years, UC went to the Elite Eight three times.

The wonders in that building have never ceased.

The two newest heroes of UC basketball are Eric Hicks and Andy Kennedy, who've led a dilapidated roster to a break-even performance in the new Big East, the toughest college basketball league on the planet. The program could have fallen apart this year. The season could have been wasted in a dark cloud. Instead, it's one of UC's most memorable seasons, 19-11 with the Big East Tournament coming up this week.

Kennedy is the interim coach who never seems to worry much about tomorrow, focusing himself and his handful of players on today. UC lost recruits after the administration forced Huggins out last summer, then an injury to Armein Kirkland chipped away at a team already lacking bodies. Still livid that UC sent Huggins away, fans avoided Shoemaker Center, now Fifth Third Arena.

Many of us wished to turn our heads from the horror. But Kennedy never blinked.

Hicks brought tireless senior leadership, to say nothing of 14 points and nine rebounds per game. Toiling with endless ferocity in the grittiest tradition of UC basketball, he also raised his profile from preseason All-Big East honorable mention to the postseason First Team.

But Hicks and Kennedy haven't merely won, nor have they merely made UC a virtual lock for their 15th straight NCAA Tournament appearance with a 78-75 win against West Virginia at Fifth Third Arena on March 4. They also brought a much-appreciated touch of class to a touchy situation. They did what the university's high-minded elements could not do, pleased the multitudes and gave UC the high sign to move on.

Hicks and Kennedy gave UC basketball fans a proper chance to say good-bye to Huggins. For all the arguments that a coaching change would do UC good, even those who were fine with seeing Huggins go wanted to see him before he went. They wanted to at least say thanks.

When Hicks mentioned that he wanted Huggins to be among his Senior Day escorts, the noise went so thick that he backed off. But Hicks and the seniors took their chance when Huggins attended the game, sitting at a sideline seat across from the visitors bench. Hicks hugged Huggins, then other seniors followed. When the game ended, Kennedy thanked the seniors over the public address system, then added, "One more thing. Huggs, we love you, brother."

Fans loved it. Just like that, closure. A chance to say thank you and good-bye. UC fans needed that much, and Huggins deserved it, especially on a day when the Bearcats displayed their finest traits.

One wonders if the send-off for Huggins also sent off a prosperous era for UC basketball. While dragging its feet on hiring Kennedy, his position has solidified. UC fans overwhelmingly want him. So, possibly, do Alabama-Birmingham, his alma mater, and the University of Mississippi in his home state.

If Kennedy goes elsewhere, he'll always be a hero at UC and new Athletic Director Mike Thomas would be off to a very rocky start for letting him leave. Fans will cross their arms at Thomas and the next UC basketball coach unless or until they deliver.

The new administration is well advised to understand that Cincinnatians hang on to guys like Huggins and Kennedy. They won't embrace the new and exciting if they must give up the tried and true in the bargain. Thomas needs to please two distinct constituencies -- UC's national reputation and local fan base -- and Kennedy is the one option who will please them both.



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