The most famous Bearcat not in the 1,000-point club was back "in the house" Tuesday night. Thing is, prior to Tuesday, hardly anyone knew he was coming.
Mick Cronin's newly-ranked #22 Bearcats were hosting Texas Southern for one of those early season "scheduled spankings". UC won big 97-54 with seven in double figures. They shot 57% from the field and 47% from the arc, but for true UC basketball historians the real story was sitting on the Texas Southern bench in a brown suit.
It was Nick Van Exel.
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The young left-handed guard that Bob Huggins didn't even initially start was back! Only he's 38-years-old now and is trying his hand at being a college assistant coach. The man who had a 13-year NBA career after two seasons at UC and a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance, is now riding a bus with the Texas Southern Tigers.
Van Exel was introduced over the PA prior to the game. Unfortunately only 6,825 were able to witness it. At the peak of Van Exel's Bearcat career "The Shoe"/Fifth Third Arena would often host twice that amount or more. Had fans known in advance, the crowd may have been better. But, in UC's defense they weren't even familiar with Van Exel's involvement with Texas Southern until hours before the game.
With former teammate Anthony Buford on hand for the TV broadcast, hopefully Van Exel was "talked up" on Fox Sports Ohio. (I know ESPN Sportscenter showed him.) Buford was among those greeting "Nick at Nite" after the game along with former Bearcat Herb Jones.
So, why coach at this level and why now?
"Just living in Houston, I wanted to get back into coaching," said Van Exel. "Actually, last year I wanted to get back into it, but I wasn't ready mentally. This opportunity presented itself and I said, 'I'm going to go ahead and give it a shot,' and let people know I'm really interested. When you take a job like this at Texas Southern, which is not a BCS school, it opens up people's eyes and that's what I wanted to do."
Just as he opened eyes with his play, Van Exel intends to open eyes with his coaching. He even admitted to showing the Texas Southern squad some of the spots on the floor where he hit some of his big shots.
"I let them know, I've got a lot of stake in this building," he said.
Now, he wants to take his NCAA experience and NBA experience and turn some young men into players. Of that Bearcat Final Four team, you probably would've guessed Buford or Terry Nelson to be the coaches. Instead, it's flashy former #31 who wants to inspire fans again-this time from the bench.
"No doubt, I'm a point guard-that's what point guards do," said Van Exel when asked if he wanted to coach long term. "As high as I can go. I have a lot of passion for the game, a lot of knowledge of the game and I have a lot of playbooks."
He admits he would be influenced a lot by former coach Bob Huggins, but insists he would be less volatile.
"I'm totally opposite of Huggs as far as that," Van Exel said. "I'm very quiet, laid back. I don't have a lot of yelling in me. His material was great. I still use it, I incorporate it a lot in these guys as far as our trapping and things like that. I learned a lot."
While Van Exel has been retired since 2006, this is all just coming to fruition now because he feels he wasn't vocal enough about it in his later years. He apparently sent some "feelers" out through the NBA, but when he didn't get much response, he took the chance with Texas Southern.
Not only is he taking a chance at coaching with Texas Southern, he's also finishing up his degree work there after all of these years. He estimates he has about a year of work left and I can tell you that former teammate Anthony Buford on him about that shortly after Tuesday night's game was over.
While it would be easy to take a shot at a Huggins-era player who didn't have his degree, like others, Van Exel was making much more money than your average college graduate in 1993. Plus, Van Exel did at one time endow a full scholarship at UC and not too many "graduates" can say that.
If you look at where Nick Van Exel's been in terms of playing in the NBA with the Lakers and "Showtime", it's admirable that he'd want to start over and learn a different aspect of the business from the ground up.
"I love it, I love it, I love this level," said an excited Van Exel. "The guys listen, they're receptive and it's a learning experience. I really need it. Being an athlete, you think you can just jump into something and do it, but I'm learning a lot of things. I'm learning more about myself, I'm learning how to talk to the kids and things like that. I like it a lot."
Well...let's not get too carried away. It's clear Nick is still adjusting to the rigors of travel that the "Texas Southerns" must endure to survive. So far, there have been no NBA luxury jets awaiting.
"That's tough," Van Exel admitted. "That's the tough part. You have to adjust. I didn't come from the NBA as far as my life-my growing up. I can get over that."
Still, going from flying and having top notch accommodations to this can be culture shock. The Tigers have yet to fly this season according to Van Exel and they've had several 12-14 hour bus trips.
After the UC game, Texas Southern was set to board a bus at the dock and travel overnight to Wichita, Kansas for a Thursday game.
Hopefully, in the end, the travel and dues are all worth it for Nick Van Exel. He hopes so, just as he hopes to make a statement by finishing the college degree he started in the early 90s.
"It's just a personal thing, it's very personal," said Van Exel. "I had that opportunity and I let it slip by. Just like I tell these kids, 'Get your degree and graduate, it helps you out in the long run,' I don't have mine. I preach that to them, 'I didn't get mine, don't make this mistake when you have the opportunity now, take advantage of it while it's here."
While his team took it on the chin by 37, you had the impression that Nick Van Exel enjoyed his return trip to Cincinnati, bus or not. He enjoyed the company of former teammates and even signed some autographs for some of the current Bearcats that assistant coach Tony Stubblefield brought to the visiting locker room area.
And, while he could wax eloquent about the Bearcats of the past, he was also very complimentary of the '09-'10 'Cats that he had just seen on the floor.
"They're very good, very talented, very big and they use their bodies," said Van Exel quickly. "They beat you up. We were expecting that. We tried to get our guys prepared for that. (They have) some big bodies out there. One thing about playing at their level compared to the level that we're on-you're not going to get anything easy, you're not going to get anything cheap when you come through that lane. Guys are going to knock you all over, we weren't ready for that."
While the Texas Southern Tigers might not be ready, it sounds like a pretty good coach is getting ready. He might be running behind a little bit in terms of his age and competition, but if you've ever watched a game involving Nick Van Exel, you should know that you NEVER EVER count him out.