By JOHN P. WISE
One Great Season
Former Cincinnati standout Anthony Buford said this week he thinks he has an idea what the West Virginia athletic community might be experiencing.
Under then-coach Bob Huggins, Buford helped lead the Bearcats to the school's first Final Four in 30 years back in 1992. And nearly two decades later, Huggins now has his alma mater, the West Virginia Mountaineers, in the Final Four for the first time in half a century.
Like he did at UC, Huggins turned the trick at WVU in just his third season, and Buford remembers the huge outpouring of support the Cincinnati community showed in 1992. He said there's probably been an even larger showing in Morgantown this week.
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"There are no professional sports in West Virginia, so the whole state is probably in a euphoric state," he said. "The university and their basketball program, their coaches and players, students, alumni and boosters are incredibly thrilled. I'm sure they are experiencing unbelievable pride right now. That's what I saw when we went to the Final Four. It was so exciting to see the pride that UC graduates exhibited and the thrill from past teams that won championships. Many of those players who were still around came back and showed us so much support. They felt like the program was back to the lofty standards they'd set so long ago."
In Wednesday's part one of this interview with Buford, the former guard said he and Huggins had a "mean-spirited" blowup a couple of years ago. Has the relationship been repaired?
Buford: I saw (Huggins) when West Virginia came to Cincinnati last year. At the end of the game, guys were just congregating and Bob sneaks up behind me and gives me this big hug. That wasn't really his character, but it was certainly nice to see him.
OGS: You said you don't pay much attention to the Final Four because of the treatment Cincinnati received in 1992. Is that still true?
Buford: In years past, I've always watched the first and second rounds, And this year I'll probably pay a little attention to the West Virginia - Duke game. I like (Duke guard) Nolan Smith. I had a pretty close relationship with his father (former Louisville star Derek Smith), and I've known Nolan since he was 3 years old.
OGS: What's the reception like around town this time of year? Do people still want to talk about 1992?
Buford: We didn't win the national championship, so when I see how the 1961 and 1962 teams are treated for winning it, I'm envious. That sits with me. I think about that all the time, just how we would have been treated around the city had we won it. It's a painful memory. I can't even watch the Final Four game from 1992. It sucks to lose once you get there, man. You realize how close you are ... If you get there as a sophomore or something, it's one thing, but as a senior, for me, it was lights out, and that's painful.
OGS: Do you see any similarities between your 1992 team and Huggins' current team at West Virginia?
Buford: No. We played 94 feet. We pressed all up and down the floor and he doesn't really do that anymore. They've got a different group of guys. Da'Sean Butler has got to be one of the most under-appreciated guys in the country. I love how he competes every time he steps on the floor. I was surprised he wasn't a first-team All-American.
Bob basically has transformed his team, including some of those holdovers, from finesse players to we're-going-to-punch-you-in-the-face-now type of players. Maybe they used to play a 1-3-1 and shoot threes, but now under Huggins, they're going to play defense, rebound like crazy and hit the weight room like they've never seen it before.
OGS: Why does everybody hate Duke?
Buford: People hate elitists or folks who project themselves as elitists. The sense is that Duke fans, alumni and players think they're better than everyone else. They give you the impression that they're looking down on you. That may not be true. I can't really say that I've had a whole lot of interaction with Duke players, but I have had some with Duke fans. People have a belief that Duke kids get all the calls, that they have an edge. A lot of that might not be true, but perception can sometimes become a reality.
OGS: Cincinnati seems to hit that 17- or 18-win mark every year under Mick Cronin, but hasn't been able to get over the hump. What is keeping the Bearcats from being a factor in the Big East and returning to the national scene?
Buford: The interesting thing I hear a lot around here is that (Cronin) left and went to rival Louisville. A lot of people heard the Huggins version of that story. But the reality is that if you had aspirations of becoming a head coach, Bob wasn't really going to help you. Mick didn't go chasing Louisville; Louisville came after him.
But having said that, there are some clear issues where Mick needs to grow. He needs to make some changes in some areas. Have they improved every year under him? Yes. But I thought in the preseason that he had a 24-win team and maybe a Sweet 16 team.
Personally, I'd get rid of some guys. If Yancy Gates plays next year like he did in his first two years ... he should be punishing teams inside. I don't know if he has the motor or the desire to become a great player. And when you bring in new guys who look at his work ethic, what do you think they're going to do? So Yancy is first and (Rashad) Bishop is second. You either have to recruit over and get guys who would be able to send them to the bench, or just get rid of them.
If you firmly believe in your program, then run it the way you think you should run it and get rid of anyone who doesn't help you get there. You cannot win with Yancy Gates. He's a coach-killer.
Here are two things I do know about Mick Cronin: He does know about basketball; he's probably too smart to be coaching some of the kids he's coaching. And two, he works his behind off. You gotta somehow get the kids to do what you want them to do.
OGS: What about Lance Stephenson?
Buford: Lance is very skilled but has a lot to learn about the college game. When you play in Brooklyn, no one takes charges, but in college, especially in the Big East, somebody's going to be in your way, so you have to learn how to score off the dribble. If someoene's screening, you should be cutting to the basket, not away from it, to get a pass and use your body to get to the basket. Yancy can shoot the basketball, (Ibrahima) Thomas can shoot the basketball, and with the lanes spread open now, you've got Cashmere Wright finishing at the basket, not over size. Lance will be driving to the basket for unmolested dunks, and now your crowd's into the game.
OGS: And staying in the Big East, do you think Steve Lavin can turn things around at St. John's?
Buford: I know his record didn't show it, but I thought Norm Roberts was just starting to get his team to come around. With that being said, I think Steve Lavin's energy and his experience going around the country as a broadcaster the last six or seven years, being exposed to a lot of other good coaches and programs, will prove to be invaluable. He's going to have to assemble a staff that's able to recruit the New York area. But he has a good enough reputation that he can recruit nationally as well. All New Yorkers want a winner, so if it's a bunch of New York kids or a mix of New York kids and some players from other regions, I think it's an excellent hire. He has a good base of players already in place, so it's just a matter of bringing in good new guys.