Vaught's Views: Basketball schedule will test Wildcats

September 24, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

This weekend Tubby Smith will spend his time trying to convince two high-profile high school guards that the University of Kentucky is the right place for them to continue their basketball careers.

However, no matter how the weekend goes with Jason Rich of Orlando and Zam Frederick of South Carolina, Smith will soon be turning his attention toward the 2003-2004 season.

The Cats start practice in mid-October, but players are now allowed to have limited individual workout sessions that are being conducted by assistant coach Dave Hobbs. The first exhibition game will be Nov. 24, the first game Nov. 21 against Winthrop and the first real game Dec. 6 at UCLA.

"You get better by practicing and individual workouts, not playing games," Smith said. "But you have to start some time."

One advantage Smith will have when practice starts is depth. He has 17 players, including four freshmen and transfer Patrick Sparks, available. That's more than he's ever had at Kentucky and should guarantee that practices will be more competitive than ever.


Of course, that should be a necessity to survive the schedule the Wildcats face. In December alone the Cats play UCLA, Michigan State, Indiana and Louisville. In January there are games with North Carolina and Notre Dame along with the start of Southeastern Conference play.

Three 9 p.m. SEC road games

Adding to the schedule's intrigue will be three 9 p.m. SEC road games at Mississippi State, Tennessee and Florida.

"The schedule is brutal. The caliber of the Kentucky schedule was established a long time ago. It's part of the Kentucky basketball tradition. It's part of the attraction of Kentucky basketball, but it does put pressure on the players," Smith said.

So does TV - and not with comments like CBS-TV sports commentator Jim Nantz recently wrote rating Rick Pitino as a better coach than Smith. No TV influences non-conference matchups. Television wants marquee games like Kentucky-Michigan State, not a gimme game for the Cats like a UK-Tennessee Tech game.

Then ESPN gets involved with the weeknight SEC package and wants Kentucky, the conference's premier team, on its 9 p.m. show as often as possible. Smith might understand ESPN's reasoning, but he doesn't have to like it - and shouldn't.

"We are the only team in the league that has three 9 p.m. away games on weeknights. Is that our reward for winning the conference last year? That's wrong. If that's the reward you get for winning, something is not right," Smith said.

Smith has voiced his displeasure over the 9 p.m. starts to athletics director Mitch Barnhart. However, Smith knows money and exposure count more than what a coach may want.

"That's just the way it is going to be in college athletics, especially at our level," Smith said. "If it is not the media pressuring you to play ranked teams, it is the fans. Everybody wants to see this game or that game. It's a double-edged sword when you have a good program."

Kentucky will again play the most difficult schedule of any SEC team. That certainly paid off last year when the Cats finished 32-4, went 16-0 in SEC play and won the SEC Tournament.

Freshman big men not likely to start

The Cats won't have Keith Bogans or Marquis Estill, two of their top three scorers last season, this year and will not have an experienced post player. Smith is not likely to open the season with one of his two freshmen big men - Shagari Alleyne or Lukasz Obrzut - starting in the middle because of the priority he puts on defense.

However, the expectations at Kentucky do not change.

Hobbs, a former head coach at Alabama, was asked after he joined Smith's staff what the difference was between UK and a school like Alabama.

"I told them that the year we started 3-5 and had a game with High Point at Rupp Arena that we still had 23,000 fans," Hobbs said. "If Alabama was 3-5 and playing a team that was 2-6, you might have had 2,000 or 3,000 fans.

"At other places, they come to see who you are playing. Here they come to see the Cats and the pressure from that can be enormous."

Smith knows. He hears the complaints, especially when the team loses some of those early-season games against high-profile competition. But he doesn't change his long-term approach.

"We're a resilient group. But people have to realize that my goal is to have us at our best in March, not November," Smith said.

That's a message Rich and Frederick obviously will hear this weekend and one Kentucky fans may have to remember again in December as Smith starts putting a new team together.

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