Midwest region features top talent in men’s basketball

(AP) — Cincinnati, with relentless clawing by its defense and incessant jawing by coach Bob Huggins, has reached the NCCA Tournament’s Elite Eight three times in the last five years.
Could this be the season the Bearcats move up and claim a national title?
Led by 6-foot-7, 260-pound Danny Fortson and bruising defense, the Bearcats are the preseason pick as No. 1, not only in Conference USA but across the country.
“We’ve been pretty good for a long time and we want to be pretty good for a long time to come,” said Huggins, adding he’s not worried about the expectations or the lofty ranking.
“I don’t pay much attention other than to what it does for recruiting. But anybody who tells you they wouldn’t want to be there is lying,” he said.
Fortson should have the Bearcats, who also return guard Damon Flint and long-range shooter Darnell Burton, primed for the postseason.
Kansas, the preseason pick at No. 2, must find a way to compensate early on until senior guard Jacque Vaughn, who decided against going pro, recovers from a broken wrist. He’s expected back in January when the inaugural Big 12 season takes off.
“You don’t replace Jacque Vaughn. You try to hide the weaknesses and promote the other areas where you are strong,” coach Roy Williams said. “It doesn’t say Jacque Vaughn on the jersey. It says ‘Kansas’ on the jersey. This is a team.”
In the Big Ten, Minnesota has all five starters back and coach Clem Haskins acknowledged it is potentially one of his best teams in his decade as coach.
“We have a chance to compete for the title,” he said.
Guard Bobby Jackson and 6-foot-9-inch, 265-pound John Thomas give the Gophers an inside and outside game.
Michigan’s Maceo Baston, Maurice Taylor and Robert “Tractor” Traylor comprise one of the country’s best front lines and make the Wolverines another strong contender.
Penn State finished second a year ago but guard Dan Earl has been bothered by a bad back. Pete Lisicky, who averaged 13.3 points to lead the team a year ago, returns.
Purdue, meanwhile, shoots for a fourth-straight Big Ten title in what could be the conference’s last season before finally implementing a league tournament. Center Brad Miller and guard Chad Austin are the only returning regulars for coach Gene Keady.
“It’s a matter of understanding it certainly is possible,” Keady said of winning another title. “There’s some older kids now in the league, so it’s going to be a real handful, though.”
Lon Kruger left Florida and replaced Lou Henson as coach at Illinois, and Kiwane Garris is back to lead the Illini; Wisconsin returns versatile Sam Okey; Indiana will rely on Andrae Patterson after losing Brian Evans; Jess Settles thought about going pro but returned to Iowa where he rejoins fellow all-conference player Andre Woolridge.