'Cats look for revival
This isn't the same Kentucky -- but can it do the same?
Posted: Friday March 12, 1999 11:26 AM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
Kentucky comes into this March a different Kentucky.
And, in Kentucky, that's not all that good.
The Commonwealth's beloved basketball Wildcats are a funny bunch this year. They knock off UCLA and Maryland, then lose to Tennessee (twice) -- and Alabama.
Then they beat Auburn, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament you know, and they win the Southeastern Conference Tournament and, when you get right down to it, no one knows quite what to think of this year's Big Blue now.
Can they repeat in St. Pete? Can they make it past the second round, where Kansas probably awaits?
Even Tubby Smith, who showed that winning a national championship in his first year on the job last season is not enough to keep the Kentucky critics from nipping at his heels, has openly wondered what's up with his Wildcats.
"I think people would be surprised for us to get into the Final Four," says Wildcats center Jamaal Magloire. "But this is not a team to be written off. We've proved that time and time again."
No, to discount Kentucky you'd have to be a bit off. The Wildcats have three seniors, remember, who have been in three straight national championship games, winning two of them. So they're tournament tough. The Wildcats whipped through Auburn and then Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, so they're hot.
But, then again, it was only a little over a week ago when they lost for the second time to Tennessee.
"We did take some lumps," said Saul Smith, Tubby's son and the backup point guard to senior Wayne Turner. "But we're a better team because of those losses."
UK went 25-8 this season, more losses than in any year since Rick Pitino's first one back in 1989-90, when the probation-saddled Wildcats went 14-14. The number of losses, alone, has the good folks in Kentucky fretting that this is not a team that can go all the way.
Fact is, this team stacks up favorably with last year's (see chart), despite the widespread worry.
"They play as hard as a team can play," says Nolan Richardson, the Arkansas coach. "They may have lost some games, but down the road, it may give them some help in being tournament-ready."
If there's picking to do on this team -- and, in Kentucky, that's one of the state's favorite pastimes -- it's with the Wildcats' outside shooting and the fact that this team, unlike the last three, doesn't seem to have a guy willing to take the big shot.
This year's team is awful at the 3-pointer, something Pitino relied on early and perfected throughout his tenure. UK was 10th in 3-point accuracy in the 12-team SEC this season, at 33.2 percent, the worst mark in UK history. Worse yet, senior Scott Padgett, probably the best outside shooter on the team, has struggled with his confidence at times.
It's something that other teams have picked up on, too. South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler talked about the Wildcats' lack of a "go-to guy." And opposing players have noticed the Wildcats struggling, too.
Of course, it was hard not to notice when Smith benched Turner and Heshimu Evans -- who, with Padgett, make up his three starting seniors -- during the last stages of Kentucky's last loss to Tennessee.
"They still have heart. They still play hard. But they're definitely not the Kentucky of the past," Tennessee's Isiah Victor said after that game. "They just don't have the horses they've had in past seasons. There certainly aren't any (Tony) Delks or Antoine Walkers out there. And they don't have any shooters anymore.''
Last season, Kentucky relied on Jeff Sheppard to pull through the tough times. Before that, it was Walker and Delk.
Now, it has to be one of the three seniors. And each knows it.
Padgett came through in the SEC Tournament finals with 20 points, including nailing three of his five 3-pointers. He sees nothing critically wrong with this team.
"We sat down after the Tennessee game and looked at some film. We realized there weren't a lot of major things we needed to work on, just some minor things," he said after the SEC finals. "We made a goal to be 9-0 in the postseason. We're 3-0 right now."
The recent success has silenced the Kentucky critics, but all it will take is one slip in the NCAAs for them to start barking again.
During the team's late-season swoon, when the Wildcats lost four of their last seven regular-season games, a letter to the editor in a publication that follows the team called for Smith to take responsibility for this "fiasco" of a season. Callers to his radio show challenge him on every move he makes.
And this is a coach who has not yet finished his second season at UK.
And he won the NCAA title in his first.
"I was in Memphis the other day, and I couldn't believe how they were barbecuing my man Tubby," Richardson said. "I wish the hell they'd run me out of town with that kind of record."
Smith is 60-12 at UK (83.3 percent). Whether he can get his team to put together six more wins, though, is all that matters
"This year, I don't think anybody expects us to get past the Sweet Sixteen. But that's what this is all about. That's what Kentucky does," said his son Saul. "What else do we know how to do, except get there?"
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