COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT : EAST REGIONAL : Goal: Play Tar Heels, Not History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What, Cincinnati worry? About what? About North Carolina's big-deal reputation? About its tradition? Its ancestry? About all that ancient-history stuff? About all those players who used to play there?

"Doesn't mean much to me," Cincinnati senior forward Erik Martin said Saturday, looking toward today's East Regional final in the NCAA basketball tournament. "They're just another team. (Michael) Jordan can't play for them tomorrow."

Disrespect?

No, self-respect.

Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins is encouraging his players to think of their next opponent as nobody special. He urges them to believe that any Bearcat is every bit as good as any Tar Heel. He hates the prospect of North Carolina's image driving Cincinnati (27-4) nutty.

"A lot of times, the difference between two teams is what is on the front of their jerseys," Huggins said. "It's all a state of mind."

North Carolina is a state that is out of its mind over basketball, what with the Tar Heels' unprecedented 19 consecutive NCAA tournament invitations--the best UCLA could do was 15, from 1967-81--and a past that includes six appearances in the national championship game.

North Carolina (31-4) is the alma mater of Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty etc., etc., etc.

Yet it is Cincinnati that kept dribbling all the way to the Final Four in the calendar year last, bounced from the tournament by Michigan by four points and absolutely dying for another crack at the Wolverines in next weekend's semifinals at New Orleans.

That explains why Huggins is so eager to get his message across.

"When people go to Carolina, they think they will automatically be good and win games," the Bearcat coach said. "Well, the same thing is starting to happen with us."

It is early yet. No one in Ohio is constructing a new arena and calling it the Bob Dome. But things sure are better. Cincy went 15 years without an NCAA bid. Huggins has won 95 games in four seasons. His starting lineup includes three guys from California, one from Alabama and one from Wisconsin. He can recruit beyond the county line.

The 40-year-old coach found Corie Blount living with his octogenarian great-grandmother and stocking shelves for $4.25 an hour at a Kmart, his future uncertain with his Monrovia high school career over. Blount grew five inches to 6 feet 10 and became quite a player.

Martin was at Rancho Santiago College at the same time as Blount, beating just about every junior college opponent that came along. Martin began to shoot 300 to 400 shots a day to become a better player by the time he hit Ohio.

Tarrance Gibson was living in humble Alabama surroundings with a legal guardian and came to Cincinnati without so much as a winter coat. Now he is a respected senior guard who is closing in on a degree in criminal justice and occasionally considers becoming a coach.

Huggins--Hugs to his fans--promised to resurrect Bearcat basketball. "I had all kinds of people call me and say, 'You're nuts. What's wrong with you? You're setting yourself up to fail,' " he said. "But I think people are too concerned with just doing what they need to get by. I think the world's full of mediocrity, and I don't think it's that hard to rise above it."

With a five-senior starting lineup, the time for Cincinnati to win might well be now.

"I don't want our guys to be afraid to fail," Huggins said. "But our team also isn't afraid to dream a little."

Dean Smith, 62, has been around too long to be afraid of much. But he does worry about Cincinnati's nasty defense. And about its "vastly underrated" offense. And about things that made his eyes bulge Saturday while watching the Bearcats on film.

The play he replayed again and again was the one in which Blount sprang high to block a shot. He saw Blount retrieve the ball and pitch the outlet pass. He saw a Cincinnati player take the ball to the basket and blow the layup. And he saw a player follow up the missed shot and ram it through the hoop with a backboard-shaking jam.

"It was Blount," Smith said.

Scary, scary stuff.

"I've got to ask my assistant not to make these tapes any more," Smith joked. "They always put the good stuff in there and get you scared. They never put in the mistakes."

He assumes that Cincinnati makes mistakes.

Same as Cincinnati assumes--perhaps dangerously--that North Carolina is simply another team.

East Regional Notes

Before Bobby Cremins' change of heart, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said former South Carolina coach Frank McGuire "told me that Bobby's not so sure he made a good decision" to leave Georgia Tech to coach the Gamecocks. Asked if he hated to lose one of the conference's top coaches, Smith said: "No, I hope they all leave. Make my job easier." . . . Although Bob Huggins agreed to shave his head if his team reached the Final Four, the coach asked: "Is after the season OK?" . . . Smith said, no, shaving his head was not a consideration. "Wouldn't look good with my nose," he said. . . . Because of a sore knee, Bearcat backup guard Allen Jackson won't know until today if he can play. He missed Friday's game.

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