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Kentucky is Back

February 6, 2003 Columns No Comments

Kentucky Basketball is Back

by Phil Kasiecki

For those who have been wondering, Kentucky basketball is just fine.

At times in the last year or so, that has been a difficult idea to entertain. The Wildcats had a tumultuous season and offseason last year, with many off-court problems. Marvin Stone was unhappy and transferred at mid-season after never developing into the type of player many figured he would out of high school. Rashaad Carruth transferred after the season, and promising post player Jason Parker was dismissed from the team. Then Cliff Hawkins, the incumbent point guard, was academically ineligible for the first semester. And on top of it all, the Wildcats have not been getting the kind of blue-chip recruits they usually get, instead having a team stocked with players who were perhaps a step below that entering the college ranks.

Tubby Smith probably wasn’t on the hot seat, but the seat had to be warming up a bit. The Wildcats were 22-10 last season, with the aforementioned turmoil, and they were far from unbeatable. All-American Tayshaun Prince was gone, and a big question loomed over who would lead the way. Keith Bogans might have been the logical choice, but he had been a disappointment thus far in his college career, especially as a junior. But that was not the only question at hand entering the season.

At this point, it is safe to say that Kentucky is doing just fine. The Wildcats have won 11 straight after Tuesday night’s 70-55 win over No. 1 Florida, a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. The Wildcats dominated the Gators with their defense, and shot the lights out on three-pointers with great ball movement. Bogans and junior guard Gerald Fitch combined to outscore the Gators in the first half, 26-22, and the Gators had just one field goal in more than 13 minutes to close the half.

This game was not an isolated event, however. The Wildcats have done much the same to every team they have faced since Louisville and old friend Rick Pitino humbled them in their biggest rivalry game of the season. In SEC play, the Wildcats are allowing 57 points per game and holding opponents to under 40% from the field. They also have the top turnover margin largely from forcing more turnovers than any other SEC team. (They are tied with South Carolina in turnovers forced in all games.)

And the Wildcats have done it without superstars or much fanfare. Instead, they have a deep, athletic team with good balance and effective players who are playing very well together.

Bogans has been the senior leader the Wildcats have needed; he is leading the team in scoring, but most importantly, he is doing things that help win games such as clutch baskets. His overall offensive game has improved, as he used to fall in love with the three-pointer and struggled shooting it. Now he shoots it well from long range while being a more complete scorer, and he is second on the team in assists.

Marquis Estill isn’t a dominating post player, but he has been very effective on the post. He uses his big body well to get position, he moves well, and uses his jump hook effectively. He’s among the SEC’s leaders in blocked shots and offensive rebounds as well.

Junior Gerald Fitch is another big key, as the do-everything guard will play the point as well as shooting guard spot. He plays well at both ends of the floor as a good defender, ball handler, and he is shooting nearly 40% on three-pointers.

Sophomore Chuck Hayes gives the team toughness, as the versatile combo forward quietly leads the team in rebounding and is a warrior. He’s undersized for the post, but he’s athletic, plays some small forward and doesn’t complain about his role.

The Wildcats have had contributions from every regular in some way, and overall have played very well as a unit. They are very active at the defensive end, not allowing a lot of ball movement, and they get a lot of easy baskets off turnovers. Estill’s presence also helps them get good looks out on the perimeter when the defense collapses, and the players move well without the ball going off picks. It shows in one big stat: the Wildcats are shooting nearly 49% from the field for the season.

Smith may not be getting recruiting classes loaded with elite talents, but that looks to be the stamp he is putting on this program. In recent years, Kentucky has lost recruiting battles for some elite talents, especially at the point guard position. Instead of using Kentucky’s stature to lure the very best players, he is content to bring in good players who will play defense and within the team concept. Bogans is the only McDonald’s All-American on this team, though Hawkins, Hayes, Estill and freshman Kelenna Azubuike were consensus top 50-100 players out of high school. Others, like Fitch and fellow junior forward Erik Daniels, were late bloomers who came with good credentials. The Wildcats originally signed Louisiana-Lafayette center Michael Southall a couple of years ago, but released him when he got into trouble with the law.

When Smith failed to sign one of the many elite point guards in the class of 2000, instead sticking with his son as the incumbent and signing Hawkins, some wondered if Kentucky was losing its touch or if Smith was a bit too loyal to his son. In the past, the Wildcats had no trouble getting elite talents at just about any position. The Wildcats have still not had an elite point guard recently, having questions at the position in recent years, but they have generally handled it by committee very well. Fitch has proven more than capable of bringing up the ball without losing his offensive punch, and Bogans has handled the ball as well.

The biggest concern might be if the Wildcats are peaking too soon. They are 7-0 in SEC play and 17-3 overall, but there is still a month left to play before the SEC Tournament, let alone the NCAA. Based on the first month of SEC play, one can expect both the next month and the tournament to be a treacherous road, especially since the Wildcats still have road dates remaining with Mississippi this Saturday and Georgia and Florida next month. While the Wildcats are 6-1 on the road this season, Georgia and Florida have not lost at home this season, and while the Wildcats are 7-3 in the last ten meetings with Mississippi, the Rebels have won two of the last three meetings in Oxford.

The Wildcats now look like the nation’s hottest team, and appear very difficult to beat. Considering this has been said of other teams on several occasions this season, this might be a bit presumptuous, but they look like they will be a force in March. If nothing else, we can rest assured that basketball at the traditional power is in pretty good shape right now.


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