Tuesday, March 16, 2004

UK's playing style served up in a dish


Smith, Wildcats take pride in 'unbelievable' passing game

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Basketball cognoscenti have gushed lately about Kentucky's unselfishness. What they may not know is that this fancy passing isn't a passing fancy - or even optional.

"The thing most people don't understand is that they are required to pass it," assistant coach David Hobbs said. "If you've got an open shot and there's an open guy closer to the basket, you're supposed to give it to him. That's non-negotiable."

Kentucky (26-4), the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, stands out because every player can set up a score. Their passing from the high post to the low post, especially, has been honed over the long season.

"It's the best high-low passing game in college basketball," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said of UK. "When the ball goes into the low post and you double it, they know exactly where to look and they come running."

Last weekend at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, that was often Kelenna Azubuike slashing through the lane to catch passes from Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels in the pivot - and dunking them.

"I can still see Azubuike going right down that lane, boom," Odom said.

Said Azubuike: "We've got great passers. If you cut, they'll find you."

Hayes had eight assists Sunday against Florida in the SEC finals, and had seven- and six-assist games in the month prior. Daniels, the slender center from Princeton High, also had an eight-assist game this winter and had two recent six-assist outings.

Point guard Cliff Hawkins leads UK with 160 assists, but the post players come next: Hayes with 86, Daniels with 82. The next-closest total is the 38 of guard Gerald Fitch.

"The passing is unbelievable," said C.M. Newton, a former UK athletic director who now serves as a consultant for the SEC. "Who would have thought their two inside players would end up as clever a high-low team as they have?"

The man Newton hired would. Finding big men with good court sense is an emphasis in Tubby Smith's recruiting.

Six different Wildcats have totaled 27 or more assists. They have multiple options, as five scorers average in double figures.

"Everyone is capable of making a pass to the open guy," Daniels said. "And me and Chuck work well together. We look for each other."

The passing abilities of Hayes and Daniels worried Florida coach Billy Donovan so much that he refrained Sunday from double-teaming either, encouraging them to shoot. Hayes took advantage with a career-high 23 points.

"I think you've got to force Daniels and Hayes to score," Donovan said. "They're such great passers that when you double them, they find people so well, so you have to live with them making some baskets."

UK's passing seems to be peaking.

Nine days ago, UK earned 25 assists from its 32 made baskets against Florida. It had 19 assists with just seven turnovers Sunday in the rematch with Florida, a day after totaling 19 assists and eight turnovers against South Carolina. The Wildcats didn't have a turnover during the first 17 minutes against the Gamecocks, who lead the league in steals.

"We're moving the ball better, we're executing, we're playing unselfish as a team," Daniels said. "And it's showing."

TICKET INFO: Should Washington, UAB, Lehigh or Florida A&M return any of their allotted tickets, those tickets will be sold to the general public at the Nationwide Arena box office at 10 a.m. Friday. The tickets are for Friday's sessions only and cost $50 per ticket per session.

NEXT WEEK: Tickets are still available for the St. Louis regional at the Edward Jones Dome. The Missouri Valley Conference has set up a 24-hour hotline for ticket info: 314-621-2582.

All-session tickets, good for admittance to all three games of the regional, are $100 and $110. The $120 seats are sold out.

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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