Sunday, March 21, 2004
Fired-up Blazers ready to put heat on Kentucky
Ex-Arkansas assistant uses same frenetic Razorbacks style at UAB
By Tom Withers
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS - Kentucky is about to take a familiar trip to a very warm place.
Today, the top-seeded Wildcats will play ninth-seeded Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the first matchup between the schools in 23 years - but under eerily similar circumstances to their previous meeting.
In 1981, UAB beat Kentucky to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
The time warp won't feel nearly so long for Kentucky, since UAB plays the same "40 minutes of Hell" style former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson tormented the Wildcats and other SEC teams with for years.
"It's a mirror image of the Razorbacks, the way the Blazers are playing," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "Nobody likes it. It's tough."
And it's the only system UAB coach Mike Anderson knows.
Anderson adopted the press-'em-until-they-drop philosophy after serving as an assistant for 17 years under Richardson, and the Blazers' second-year coach plans to release "Hell" again on the Wildcats (27-4) in the St. Louis Regional.
"I've seen it work," Anderson said.
It did to perfection on Friday night in the opening round. The Blazers played at their typical breakneck pace from the opening tip while outlasting eighth-seeded Washington 102-100 for their first NCAA tourney win since 1986.
They'll attack the Wildcats the same way.
Kentucky knows what's coming, but fortunately the tournament's top-seeded team got a preview in the first round as it was forced to hold off stubborn Florida A&M, 96-76.
After the Wildcats' 13th straight first-round win, someone scribbled "five more" on the chalkboard in Kentucky's locker room, a reference to the number of wins it will take to win an eighth NCAA title.
Maybe "play better defense" would have been a more appropriate message.
The Wildcats were less than impressive in beating the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference champions. In fact, for nearly 30 minutes the 16th-seeded Rattlers made Kentucky look rather ordinary - and vulnerable.
"We know we have to do a better job defensively," guard Gerald Fitch said. "We like playing that uptempo kind of game, but we have to get some stops at the other end."
On Friday, Florida A&M's quick guards beat Kentucky's off the dribble and the Rattlers made eight 3-pointers while scoring 52 points in the first half.
The point total was the most the Wildcats had given up in a half this season, a statistic that didn't sit well with Smith, a devout minister of defense.
"Any defense we went to, whether it was zone, half- or full-court pressure, they were beating it and capitalizing on it," Smith said.
Kentucky had better buckle down from the start against the Blazers, or they'll be Scaredy Cats again.
"We're looking at Florida A&M as a learning experience, because both teams are very similar," Fitch said. "It set our mind-set in the defensive mode."
In today's other second-round game at Nationwide Arena, fourth-seeded Cincinnati (25-6) plays fifth-seeded Illinois (25-6) in the Atlanta Regional.
Alabama-Birmingham makes no apologies for its hellish style of play, and the Blazers are hoping they can use it to pull of an upset.
And although his team is a "huge, huge underdog," Anderson has seen enough upsets to know it could happen again.
"Everything might be lined up," he said. "The lights, the moon, everything."
No. 1 UK vs. No. 9 UAB
Tipoff: Approximately 4:50 p.m. today, Nationwide Arena (19,906), Columbus.
Records: UK 27-4, UAB 21-9.
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
TV: Ch. 12, 7.
Series: Tied 1-1.
Line: UK by 10.
Coach: Tubby Smith (191-51, seventh season; 315-113 overall).
Coach: Mike Anderson (42-22, second season; same overall).
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