Vaught's Views: Cats left impression on SEC opponents

October 31, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

BIRMINGHAM - Not only did Kentucky impress its own fans last year, it also made a lasting impression on the top returning players in the Southeastern Conference.

Amazing, phenomenal and unbelievable were three of the most popular words at the SEC Media Days here Wednesday when players were discussing the way the Wildcats went 19-0 in conference regular season and tournament play last season.

"I knew they were a great team, but never did I think they could go undefeated," said Tennessee sophomore point guard C.J. Watson. "I don't know if anyone could ever do that again. They played great team ball and had a lot of role players that played their roles. That's why they won big."

Vanderbilt's Matt Freije was picked as the preseason player of the year Wednesday in voting by media members. Since he's a senior, he's seen a lot more SEC games than Watson. Yet he was just as impressed by Kentucky's perfect run.


"With our conference as strong as it was, I was surprised they didn't lose," Freije said. "But I guess that just shows how good they were. Their defense was the best in the nation and speaks volumes to how committed they were to each other."

Alabama junior guard Earnest Shelton remembers thinking that even when his team rose to No. 1 nationally in December that it would still be hard to win the SEC Western Division.

"I knew there was not one monster team that was just going to sweep through the SEC," Shelton said. "Nobody can coast through a game in this league and win. That's why for a team to go on a run like Kentucky did was so surprising. I watched them and they really were playing phenomenal. They were clicking on all cylinders. They were making shots, executing, playing defense and, most of all, they were having fun."

If SEC media members are right, Kentucky is going to have a lot of fun again. They somewhat surprisingly went against most preseason polls that have Florida ranked higher than UK and picked the Cats to win the SEC championship.

Fitch is only UK player on preseason all-SEC team

Those same voters obviously feel that most of the credit for last year's success should go to Tubby Smith, who swept all the national coach of the year awards for his team's 32-4 season. How else could guard Gerald Fitch be the only UK player to be named to the preseason all-conference team?

Fitch was a first team pick along with Freije, David Lee of Florida, Jaime Lloreda of LSU and Anthony Roberson of Florida. The second team had Timmy Bowers of Mississippi State, Justin Reed of Mississippi, Kyle Davis of Auburn, Lawrence Roberts of Mississippi State and Marco Killingsworth of Auburn.

That's two players apiece for Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State. None of those were picked to even win their division.

Where was UK's Chuck Hayes? He was playing in the Pan-American Games this summer as one of the United States' top players while those who earned preseason All-SEC honors were watching from home.

Smith calls Hayes the "glue" to Kentucky's play. All he does is rebound, play defense, pass, run the court and score as needed.

He got one of my votes for all-conference honors, but that might have been the only one he got because Killingsworth got the final preseason honor with just four votes.

"If I had a vote, I would vote for Hayes," Tennessee center Brandon Crump said. "They may have overachieved as a team last year, but any team would have to do that to go undefeated. But Hayes is a big, big part of their team."

Don't worry about Hayes being distraught over his lack of recognition. He wasn't expecting to be honored and it certainly won't impact his play when UK opens its exhibition season Tuesday.

"I'm about winning, not individual honors," Hayes said.

Winning is what Kentucky did better than any SEC team last year and could again this year despite its perceived lack of talent.

"They lost some good players. I don't see them running the table again. Of course, I didn't last year when they went on one of the best runs ever in college basketball," Shelton said.

That's why Vanderbilt guard Russell Lakey says you won't find an SEC player underestimating the Cats' potential this season.

"Almost every basketball team in the country is trying to get to that level where Kentucky is at right now," Lakey said. "When we were working in the summer, it was to get to where we could play and compete with them because they are already at the top of that mountain the rest of us are trying to climb."

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