Friday, October 17, 2003

Kentucky Basketball Preview

Wildcats banking on experience

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The 2002-03 Kentucky basketball season will go down as the year Tubby Smith won back his fickle fan base. He took a group left for dead after a blowout loss to Louisville and molded it into a monster, becoming the first Southeastern Conference team in 51 years to go unbeaten in league play and the conference tournament.

•When: Tonight.
•Where: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington.
• Admission: Free tickets have all been distributed.
• Doors open: 10:30 p.m., only to ticket-holders. UK will take the floor seconds after midnight.
• Highlights: The program begins at 11 p.m. with fan contests, video highlights, introduction of the women's team, and appearances by UK's cheerleaders and pom squad.
• TV: Fox Sports Net in Ohio and ICN-6 in Northern Kentucky, live (11:30 p.m.-1 a.m.).
Smith's greatest act was in making the Wildcats greater than the sum of their parts. He'll need to do that again this winter, for this UK team has key experience (five seniors) and a loaded backcourt, but will have to make do with either a young or smallish frontcourt.

Four of UK's top six players return - senior guards Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins, senior forward Erik Daniels (Princeton High) and junior forward Chuck Hayes.

Early projections are mixed. Street & Smith's rates UK as the nation's No. 4 team. Several other preseason magazines place UK just outside the top 10, including Basketball News (No. 12), Slam (13) and The Sporting News (15).

How good are the newcomers?

Good enough to get minutes early, but not major minutes.

• Coach: Tubby Smith (164-47, seventh season; 288-109 overall).
• 2002-03: Finished 32-4, ranked No. 1 in final AP poll. Lost to Marquette in Elite Eight.
• Lost: Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill, Jules Camara.
• Gained: Shagari Alleyne, Lukasz Obrzut, Bobby Perry, Sheray Thomas.
• Projected starters: Cliff Hawkins (PG), Gerald Fitch (SG), Antwain Barbour (SF), Erik Daniels (PF), Chuck Hayes (C).
• Exhibition games: Nov. 4, vs. Team Nike; Nov. 12, vs. EA Sports.
• Regular-season opener: Nov. 21, vs. Winthrop.
• Tickets: Call 1-859-257-1818.
The Twin Towers freshman duo of 7-foot-3 Shagari Alleyne and 7-1 Lukasz Obrzut will be intriguing, and they certainly addressed the need for size. The buzz is that Obrzut, a 257-pound native of Poland, is more game-ready than Alleyne. Smith has said both are physical players, and they'll likely help more defensively than offensively this season.

The other two freshmen, 6-8 forwards Sheray Thomas and Bobby Perry, could be role players this season.

Who plays the post?

UK will likely start the 6-6 Hayes as its "center," at least early in the season, and the 6-8 Daniels could help there, too.

"I think that's where guys like Kelenna Azubuike and Antwain Barbour are going to have to step up from the wing spot and give us more help with rebounding," Smith told the Cats' Pause.

Bernard Cote, a 6-9 sophomore, has been beset with back injuries. He may have to have surgery and redshirt.

How well will this team shoot?

"I think we can be a very good perimeter offensive scoring team," Smith said.

Notice he didn't say it would necessarily be a good shooting team. Take out the numbers for UK's departed players, and the Wildcats - who shot 48.8 percent last season - would have made 46.9 percent. They made 35.6 percent of their 3-pointers, but without their seniors, they would have shot a so-so 34.4 percent.

UK will be most efficient scoring on drives to the basket and midrange jumpers. Fitch, who made 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers, is the key outside threat. Hawkins improved last season to 38.1 percent from that range, but expect Azubuike to shoot the 3-pointer more than Hawkins.

Where does the leadership come from?

Smith would love someone to emerge the way Bogans did last season. Fitch, who can relate to younger players' missteps - for he has taken plenty of those during his career - should be the guy this year. Hayes is also an emotional sparkplug.

What are the intangibles?

Who steps up. Barbour and Azubuike are through as understudies, and their production will be needed. They could battle for a starting spot.

Smith must decide whether to continue having Fitch and Hawkins share point guard duties.

How UK handles its potentially crippling four-week stretch before SEC play starts could also shape this team's development.


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