Junior Forward Chuck Hayes, a communications major, recently visited Bluegrass Airport in Lexington to report a story on the airport's security operation for a journalism class. The next day the security chief sent an e-mail to coach Tubby Smith praising Hayes's character and intelligence. For Smith it was just one more indication that Hayes is ready to lead the Wildcats to another SEC championship—and more. "Chuck epitomizes what I think a college basketball player should be," Smith says. "He has a lot of skill, but he's also our most unselfish player, our hardest worker and our best spokesman."
The unspectacular, over-achieving Hayes is an appropriate centerpiece for Kentucky, which for the first time since 1992 does not have a former McDonald's High School Ail-American on its roster. The 6'6", 247-pound Hayes started all 36 games last year and was the shortest player in 25 years to lead the Wildcats in rebounding (6.8 per game). Last summer he was one of the less-heralded players on the U.S. team coached by Michigan State's Tom Izzo at the Pan Am Games, but Hayes led the team in minutes (29.2 per game) and rebounding (7.6) and was second in scoring (11.2). " Coach Izzo told me that when I'm vocal and emotional, it inspires the guys I'm playing with," Hayes says. "I want to do that for my Kentucky teammates too."
It helps that those teammates, who with Hayes have a combined 192 career starts, are the most experienced group Smith has coached during his seven years in Lexington. The backcourt will be anchored by senior Gerald Fitch, a three-year starter and the team's leading returning scorer (12.3), and senior point guard Cliff Hawkins, who was the sixth man last season and led the squad in assists for the second straight year.
The experience of last season is enough to motivate the Wildcats. After starting 6-3, they reeled off 26 straight wins before losing, 83-69, to Marquette in the Elite Eight. "We thought we'd at least make the Final Four," Fitch says. "Once you win a few, you don't ever want to lose."
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