Bolting from a chair in his well-appointed office, Tubby Smith is suddenly staring you in the face, his posture—knees bent, hands out, eyes wide—suggesting more than a hint of menace. Granted, defensive stances are nothing new for the Kentucky coach, who was hearing calls for his head as recently as New Year's, when an 18-point loss to that !@#$% turncoat, Louisville's Rick Pitino, still had rabid Cats fans frothing. But this posture is different. Smith is merely reenacting one of the lasting images of the college hoops season, a scene the commonwealth faithful credit with turning the Wildcats from chronic underachievers into perhaps the most feared team in the land. � On Jan. 14, his team down by 14 at Vanderbilt, Smith stood on the far baseline of the Memorial Gym stage—home of the funky configuration that seats teams behind the baskets—and shifted into his defensive crouch, exhorting his players with the manic intensity of a cheerleader on speed. "It was an eerie feeling, almost Hike I was playing," says Smith, still guarding his imaginary foe. "They couldn't hear me from the other end, but they could see their coach going berserk! Hell, I was desperate!" � In the running psychodrama that is Bluegrass Basketball (Hail Pitino! Fire Tubby! Wait, save Tubby before the NBA takes him!), Smith's outburst was the opening salvo in the latest installment, Episode XXVI: Tubby's Revenge. Drawing energy from their coach, the Wildcats outscored Vandy 46-16 in the second half that night to win 74-52 and ignite a remarkable midseason transformation. After Sunday's 74-66 victory at No. 21 Georgia, in which Kentucky broke a late tie by forcing turnovers on three straight possessions, the Wildcats were 24-3, 14-0 in the SEC and ranked second nationally. Heading into a March 5 meeting at Rupp Arena with last-place Vanderbilt and a tough road game this Saturday against No. 3 Florida, Kentucky was riding an 18-game winning streak, the school's longest since 1995-96. What's more, just when it seemed Pitino had gained the upper hand, engineering his own 17-game streak, Louisville had dropped four of its last six (much to the delight of Lexingtonians still bitter over Pitino's traitorous return to their archrival a year ago.)
So dominant is the Wildcats' defense these days that it's drawing comparisons to such throwbacks as Temple's 2-3 matchup zone, UNLV's amoeba and Arkansas's Forty Minutes of Hell. Rival coaches are even using videotapes of Kentucky games as teaching tools. "I told my players, 'Does it look like they have six guys out there? It sure looks that way to me,' " says coach John Calipari of resurgent Memphis. "So we stopped and counted, and they only had five. Are they the most talented team in the country? It doesn't matter. To win a national title, you have to play great defense and rebound the ball. That's why they're the best team in the country."
Not even Smith believes his team is the nation's most skilled outfit, calling his Wildcats "average players doing extraordinary things right now." Though Kentucky may not possess a single NBA first-round pick—seniors Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill and Jules Camara are borderline prospects—a growing number of observers think these Wildcats are superior to No. 1 Arizona's. "I'd prefer Kentucky if they went head-to-head," said LSU's John Brady (who has faced both teams this season), citing Kentucky's commitment on the defensive end.
For further evidence that ability isn't everything, one need only look at last year's Kentucky squad, which Smith called the most talented of his then 11-year career before the team imploded amid infighting and suspensions. Four players eventually departed from Team Turmoil, which turned in the Wildcats' third straight season of double-digit losses, a Kentucky first. "The experience that guys had last year makes this like a rebirth," says Smith, who has drawn insight from his latest reading material, Pat Conroy's My Losing Season. "They didn't want to go through that again."
For a while it appeared that they might. The Wildcats stumbled early against Virginia and Michigan State, big-conference opponents on their way to mediocre years. Soon thereafter came the crushing defeat at Louisville, in which Kentucky squandered an 11-point first-half lead in losing 81-63. ("It was almost like somebody drank something," Smith says of the collapse.) Suddenly the sky was falling again in Lexington, judging from its notoriously hysterical talk-radio shows. "People got down on us," says Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes. "Our heart wasn't in that game, and the fans saw that. After that game, everyone recommitted themselves to the team."
More to the point, Smith went back to basics on defense. As recently as Jan. 2, the Wildcats were on pace to set a school record for worst three-point-shooting defense (38.8%) and were allowing foes to shoot 44.9% overall, which would have been Kentucky's poorest mark in 11 years. "We were terrible," Smith says. "I told them this was the worst defensive team I've ever coached." Partly to blame, he says, was his own time-consuming attempt to install a new, more complicated offense blending the flex and Princeton schemes. Once that was aborted in late December, Bogans says, "we started going over defensive principles again, walking through everything like it was the first day of practice." The approach worked. Since the watershed win at Vandy, the Misercats had held opponents to 40.2% shooting and just 60.5 points and 12 offensive rebounds per game through Sunday.
Mixing a devastating half-court man-to-man with a 2-3 zone (off inbounds plays) and an occasional zone press, Kentucky emphasizes communication, quickness and intelligence to challenge every shot—if a foe can get one off. The defense requires agile, quick-to-help forwards ( Hayes and Erik Daniels) as well as shot-blocking big men (6'9" Estill and 6'11" Camara) whose safety net allows the guards (Bogans, Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins) to extend their pressure, sometimes to half-court.
"It's not much of a gambling defense," says Hayes. "We just like for the tempo of the game to be in our hands. If we want to slow you down, we'll go to an extended zone press. If we just want to make life tough for you when you get past half-court, we'll go into our man-to-man and try to deny you the ball. We don't want to play at anyone else's pace." Just ask poor Florida, which took a No. 1 ranking into Rupp on Feb. 4, only to shoot 6 for 30 in the first half of a 70-55 drubbing.
After that game C.M. Newton, the retired former Alabama coach and Kentucky athletic director, sent Smith an e-mail saying he had never seen an elite team dominated so completely. When in May 1997 Newton chose Smith, who then held the head job at Georgia, to replace Pitino (who was leaving for the Boston Celtics) and become Kentucky's first African-American coach, he did so in part because he knew Smith could coach Pitino's players. Smith led Kentucky to its seventh national title in '98. "Aside from being a tremendous basketball coach, Tubby's the most human of human beings," Newton says. "If there's anything you could be critical of Tubby for, it may be for going too far with some players. He thinks of himself as a surrogate father for those kids."
Smith takes much of the blame for last year's problems, saying his tour as a 2000 Olympic assistant kept him from spending enough time getting to know his recruits and their families. " Kentucky isn't for everybody," he says. "It can inflate you to the point where you think you're indestructible. Then you find out you're not, and that's a real bummer. You've got to pick up the pieces."