Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Smith exhorts Wildcats
Kentucky one victory from its 14th straight 20-win season
By Murray Evans
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON - Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith is as happy with his team as he's been all season. He just hopes his players don't hear about it.
"This group is a group, if they think that you're satisfied ...," Smith said, shaking his head and leaving that thought unfinished. Later, he talked about his efforts to continually find ways to motivate his team.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.
"That's the magical part of coaching," Smith said. "If you can figure that out, you can win a championship."
Smith said his team this season isn't as "serious-minded" as some recent Kentucky squads, like the 1998 team that won the NCAA title or the 2003 team that advanced to the Elite Eight. But Smith figures it's too late in the season for the ninth-ranked Wildcats (19-4, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) to change their personality, so he's got to adapt his coaching methods.
"This is the way they are," Smith said.
After losing to Georgia for the second time this season, Kentucky has posted two of its better performances of the season: a never-in-doubt 73-56 homecourt win over Arkansas last Wednesday and a grind-it-out, 68-59 win at Auburn on Saturday.
Those games differed dramatically from Kentucky's first game this season against Tennessee, which the Wildcats won 69-68 in overtime on Jan. 20. Kentucky needed a late, long 3-pointer by Cliff Hawkins to force overtime and then won in bizarre fashion, as neither team scored for the last 3:50 of the game.
Both teams have changed considerably since. Kentucky's leading scorer, Gerald Fitch, missed three games with a hand injury and has come off the bench since his return against Arkansas. Tennessee has two different starters, center Major Wingate and guard Stanley Asumnu.
One thing that hasn't changed for Tennessee (13-10, 5-7) is its lack of road success. The Volunteers are 1-7 away from Knoxville, including a 71-60 loss at Georgia on Saturday. Coach Buzz Peterson tried altering travel plans for a couple of road games, traveling on game day, but that didn't work. Tennessee, as it would normally do, planned to travel to Kentucky on Tuesday night.
"At first I noticed our defense wasn't up to it; they weren't physical enough," Peterson said of his team's road woes. "What's happened of late is we've been a little better defensively. It's a mystery. We don't have any seniors on our team so it's hard. It's a tough league (in which) to win on the road. You have to have tremendous leadership and some luck come your way."
Tennessee guard Scooter McFadgon, the SEC's third-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, scored 33 against Kentucky earlier this season, but Smith said the Wildcats also need to focus defensively on C.J. Watson, who leads the SEC in assists at 5.4 per game.
Against Georgia, Watson, who averages 11.4 points per game, went 0-for-8 from the field and scored just four points. Watson missed practice Monday with a sprained big toe, but Peterson said he was optimistic that Watson will play against Kentucky.
While Tennessee hopes to make a late push for an NCAA tournament berth, Kentucky - which is one win away from its 14th straight 20-win season - has an opportunity to improve its potential tournament seed with a strong finish. Smith said he doesn't worry about where the Wildcats might land in the tournament, although he sounded like a coach campaigning for his team.
"There's nothing you can do about it," Smith said. "You have no control except the game you play tomorrow, or today. That's the only thing you can control. ...
"I like to think that if we played well for the rest of the season, though, I think we'd have a legitimate shot at being a No. 1. Those things are in the back of your mind."
No. 9 UK vs. Tennessee
Tipoff: 8 p.m. today, Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington.
Records: UK 19-4 (9-3 SEC), UT 13-10 (5-7).
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
TV: Ch. 25.
Series: UK leads 133-62.
Line: UK by 13.
Coach: Buzz Peterson (45-38, third season; 150-88 overall).
Coach: Tubby Smith (183-51, seventh season; 307-113 overall).
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