Vaught's Views: Smith thinks Cats can be better this season

October 24, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Knowing how easy it is for expectations to rise way too high in Big Blue Land, one might almost have expected Tubby Smith to downplay his team's chance for success this year.

The Cats won't have Keith Bogans, their leading scorer and team leader, or Marquis Estill, their best inside player, this season.

The Cats also have no chance of matching their 26-game win streak from last year, which was the longest in college basketball in six seasons.

Still, the Kentucky coach said not to worry because his team returns six keys players off last year's 32-4 team and has four talented freshmen.


"We're on the right path," said Smith at UK's Media Day here Thursday. "We've got the right players on the team. It's just a matter of defining their roles."

Once those roles are defined, Smith sees the same characteristics on this season's team that helped last year's team go through Southeastern Conference play unbeaten.

He said this could even be a higher scoring team because the Cats have more weapons despite losing Bogans and Estill, their first two options in most scoring situations last year.

"They are very capable of being as good, or better, than last year," Smith said. "We have that potential. I've seen that confidence within the players. A big key is believing you can win and are capable of winning."

Kentucky has that. Don't doubt that for a minute. The players are perhaps even more optimistic than their coach, who made the mistake two years ago of saying that what turned out to be "Team Turmoil" was the most talented team he had ever had.

"We know we had a great season last year, but we want to have an even better season this year," senior guard Gerald Fitch, UK's leading returning scorer, said. "You come to Kentucky to win championships and that's what our goal is again this year."

Not that Kentucky is without questions going into the season. It's just that Smith feels he either has the answers, or will get them.

* Will the 3-point shooting be better?

Smith noted that Fitch shot 41 percent and Cliff Hawkins 38 percent from 3-point range. He says Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels have improved their range and that Josh Carrier has been "burning" it up in practice. Then there is the improvement in Kelenna Azubuike.

"The strength of our team is on the perimeter, including our shooting," Smith said.

* Can freshmen Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut replace the scoring and defense that Estill and Jules Camara provided last year?

"They are athletic big men. They are guys that can run the floor," Smith said. "I expect them to give us a real defensive presence in the low post and be good screeners, rebounders and defenders."

Both are more than content to do whatever Smith wants.

"We make a good combination together," Obrzut said. "It's been a great experience for me to play with him (Alleyne) because I've never played with someone so big. We can push each other to get better and do what coach Smith wants."

* Will having to suspend Antwain Barbour for at least two exhibition games and one regular-season game because of an off-court arrest during the summer be a distraction like some UK has had in previous years?

"We've handled it in the past. It won't be a problem," Smith said. "It could be, but we won't let it be."

* What about playing a brutal non-conference schedule again that includes Michigan State, UCLA, Indiana, Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina?

"Coaches might not always like having to play that kind of competition, but players like it," Hayes said. "It makes you a better team in the long run just like it did for us last year."

* Finally, is there any way the team chemistry can be as good as last year when everything fell perfectly into place in January, February and March?

"I like our chemistry," Smith said. "We've got a blend of veteran players and young players. In Cliff (Hawkins), we have a very emotional player. In Gerald, we have a warrior who doesn't mind getting in your face. Chuck is just a bruiser. He uses his body as a weapon. I worry our players will get hurt going for a rebound against him.

"The personality and chemistry of the team has got to be nurtured, but I really like the potential this team has."

He better because his Media Day optimism certainly is going to have Kentucky basketball fans wanting as much, if not more, from this team than what the Wildcats provided in that memorable winning streak last year.

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