Vaught's Views: Expectations always abound in UK program

November 02, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Expectations are a way of life for the Kentucky basketball program.

Even if the team had not gone 32-4 last year, fans would have wanted a national championship this season. Even if the coach had not gotten a $20 million contract extension, fans would have expected a national championship.

"If you can't deal with that, then you better not be at Kentucky," said coach Tubby Smith.

Smith led Kentucky to a sweep of the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles last year and got UK to the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region final. After the season ended, Smith got a lucrative eight-year contract extension from athletics director Mitch Barnhart that did not include any buyout clause on the coach's end.

"The goal was to keep him at Kentucky because of the things he's given our program," Barnhart said. "He's got a good contract, but he's got to stay to earn a lot of those things. Obviously, it is in his best interest to stay at Kentucky for the long term and it is our goal to keep him at Kentucky long term because of the way he handles himself."


Smith warned not to expect a polished product Tuesday when the Cats play the first of two exhibition games in preparation for the season opener Nov. 21 against Winthrop.

"We are going to bring guys along at the pace that will make us better in the long run," Smith said. "Our problem is trying to get everything in. Last year we had 45 practices before our first game. This year we'll only have 36. That limits what we can do that first game. We won't have it all in by the first exhibition game, as most did not notice last year (when UK lost an exhibition game). We have to bring players along at the pace we know is beneficial to the team."

Still, Barnhart understands that fans expect a lot from every Kentucky team, with or without the coach having a $20 million contract.

"I think you are always expecting Kentucky basketball to be at a very high level," Barnhart said. "Kentucky basketball is always going to have high expectations. There's always pressure, not because of any contract, but because of what Kentucky basketball is. That's just the way it is and you know that on the front end at Kentucky. You go on about your business and keep pressing on."

Players quickly learn that. Preseason polls have UK ranked everywhere from the top five to the bottom of the top 20.

"I think the toughest thing about playing here is handling the expectations," junior Chuck Hayes said. "You not only are expected to win every game, but if you win by 15, everyone thinks you should have won by 25. The expectations for this program are unreal, but that comes with the territory. Once you commit here, you commit not only to the coaches and school, but to the people who support this program. That can make it hard because you have no control over those expectations."

Kentucky certainly exceeded expectations last year, especially after losing three games before conference play started, including one to Louisville. That only fueled speculation that the program was in trouble because of what some perceived as poor recruiting when numerous blue-chip prospects picked other schools over Kentucky.

Then Smith managed to turn the season around and UK went on a phenomenal 26-game win streak that vaulted it to No. 1 in the national rankings going into the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky does not have an NBA lottery pick on this year's team. Senior guard Gerald Fitch is on the preseason John R. Wooden Award watch list and Hayes did make the team that represented the United States in the Pan-American Games last summer. However, this team will again depend on teamwork, not individual stars, if it wants to be a title contender.

"In college basketball, everybody is always looking for the star player," Hayes said. "We just have players who can play. No stars. We feel this team can be good, really good. I don't know if we can do what we did last year because that was special. But the ingredients are here."

Along with those usual Big Blue expectations.

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