No Surprises: Huggins Is Doing Great and UC Is Struggling

They held a big high school basketball showcase game Feb. 25 in Manhattan. That's Manhattan, Kansas. Who ever heard of anything so ridiculous? They didn't even hear of it, perhaps, in Manhattan

Jerry Dowling

They held a big high school basketball showcase game Feb. 25 in Manhattan. That's Manhattan, Kansas.

Who ever heard of anything so ridiculous? They didn't even hear of it, perhaps, in Manhattan, Kan., where only about 3,200 people showed up. But that's what happens when the new basketball coach in town is well established, he understands what recruiting is about and he's turning your town into one of the capitals of the game. It takes time for the locals to become accustomed.

So Notre Dame Prep of Fitchburg, Mass., played IMG Academy of Bradenton, Fla., last weekend in Manhattan, Kansas. It was all about creating a little buzz. See, the new basketball coach in Manhattan, Bob Huggins, has recruited the Notre Dame star, Michael Beasley, to play next year at Kansas State.

Beasley is one of those kids who wouldn't have even bothered with college until the NBA passed a rule that basically requires its draft picks to kill a year past high school before they can become eligible for the pros.

Beasley told the Kansas City media after the game that he plans to do four years for Huggins at Kansas State.

Of course, one can suppose, a reason Huggins is attractive to a kid like Beasley is that Huggins won't hold him to that promise. Then again, no coach in his right mind would.

Beasley is a 6-foot-9, 230-pound power forward. Most people believe he'll play one year of college ball and then go to the NBA as a lottery pick. He scored 30 points with 17 rebounds in Notre Dame's 107-80 win over IMG Academy. He's the first McDonald's All-American recruited to Kansas State in 30 years.

Meanwhile, Kansas State is moving along nicely this season. The Wildcats have clinched a first-round bye in the Big 12 Tournament, losing only three times since Jan. 8. Two of those losses came against the Big 12 bell cow program, Kansas, and that's the only complaint anyone around K-State can muster so far about their new basketball coach, who has put them on the map.

Kansas State is 20-9, the first time it's won 20 during the regular season in almost 20 years, 1987-88. That same year, by the way, UC finished 11-17 under Tony Yates.

Kansas State has also won nine games in the Big 12, the first time it has ever won that many in the league's 11 years. Attendance for K-State games is up to a 12,418 average, trailing only Kansas and Texas among Big 12 schools.

The honeymoon is on for Huggins at Kansas State. It probably has to end sometime, but if it never ends, well, good for him and for them.

For a good many UC basketball fans, the honeymoon never ended for Huggins and the Bearcats either. For those fans, it still hasn't ended and it never will. But it ended for Huggins and the UC administration when a new president came aboard, Huggins took a DUI bust, a kid brought a gun to campus and Huggins tried to strong-arm a contract extension after agreeing in public to leave after two years.

When the university announced late in the summer of 2005 that Huggins was out, immediately, the first response was that he lost his power play with the administration. But Huggins didn't really have a power play to make.

He's smart enough to know that it makes no sense to coach where you're not wanted. UC didn't want Huggins. UC, looking to be welcomed in the Big East, wanted to be rid of the less savory aspects of its basketball reputation.

Of course, UC is more than welcomed in the Big East now. The Bearcats are easy marks for the rest of the league, losers of 11 straight games for the first time in more than 80 years. They've lost 16 of their past 17.

Going down the stretch, the Bearcats are losing games before they begin. Twice in their past four games, they've scored fewer than 50 points.

Huggins walked into a nice situation. If the Wildcats weren't accomplished when he showed up, at least they were experienced. Seniors have made 59 starts this year for K-State, the most of any Big 12 team, and another 57 starts have come from juniors. Huggins has recruited so quickly that many observers believe he can win the Big 12 next year.

Mick Cronin is coaching at UC without a honeymoon. He's like the second husband of a wife who keeps a picture of her first husband in their bedroom. He's trying to make peace of a messy life. The whole world must be a dull blur for him now.

Again, we knew it would be like this. We knew Cronin couldn't possibly put together an instant team that would compete in the Big East. We knew other Big East programs would get their licks in against UC's on-court reputation. We knew Huggins would take over a veteran outfit at Kansas State, win a good share and start a buzz.

We knew it would be like this, so disappointment isn't the appropriate response. The suspense hasn't even begun. Cronin is starting from scratch, and Huggins isn't — but where will they end up?

Sometime during the 1970s, someone asked the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai, if he thought the French Revolution had beneficial consequences. His answer: "It's too early to tell."

The question here isn't whether Huggins will succeed with his basketball teams at Kansas State. Of course he will. The question is whether Cronin will succeed at UC. That question wasn't going to be answered this year, and now is as good a time as any to stop pretending it was going to be.

The UC basketball season will end Saturday night, probably with a 10-20 record and a 13-game losing streak. We'll be happy to wave it good bye. This hasn't been a basketball season — it's been a hospitalization.

The rehabilitation is about to begin. It begins with Huggins in the NCAA Tournament and UC not even in the Big East Tournament.

It's not the end of the world. It's only the end of the season.