Smith will play 'best guys' against Nike

November 04, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Winning preseason games has never been Tubby Smith's primary goal.

Often he downplayed the significance of last year's exhibition loss to Nike Elite by explaining that his team, which eventually won 32 games, simply had not had enough time to get prepared for an early November game.

However, even though the Kentucky coach insists he won't have revenge on his mind in tonight's exhibition game in Rupp Arena against Nike Elite, he may go with an experienced lineup rather than starting one of his 7-foot freshmen centers.

"I just want to play the best guys that I feel comfortable with and that are ready to play right now and that will give us the best chance (to win)," said Smith Monday. "You want to reward guys for what they are doing in practice."


He knows he'll start point guard Cliff Hawkins and forwards Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels. Senior guard Gerald Fitch will also start even though his grandmother, Vera Pugh, died Sunday in Georgia.

"When he's ready to talk, he'll let us know," Hayes said. "We've just told him we will be there for him."

"Gerald said he wanted to play," Smith said.

Smith can't start senior Antwain Barbour, who is suspended for two exhibition games and the first regular-season game.

That leaves him leaning to sophomore Kelenna Azubuike over freshmen centers Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut.

"I'm leaning towards starting Kelenna and a smaller lineup," Smith said. "I haven't had a chance to look at Nike Elite's roster and see their size, but coming out and beating Miami shows that they are a pretty talented team."

Nike Elite opened its schedule by winning 88-86 at Miami (Fla.) Sunday. It later will play Duke, North Carolina and Florida.

Nike has eight former college players

Nike Elite has a roster of eight former college players along with Ousamane Cisse, who opted to bypass college in hopes to playing in the NBA only to fail to make a roster. However, Smith insists he's looking at this as a test, not a final exam.

"You play exhibition games to try to measure how far you have come and test yourself against some of the best and figure out what you have to work on," Smith said. "Our defense is better than our offense right now, so I want to make sure that is going to be our bread and butter.

"Even with that, we should be able to put some points on the board. I would like to see that we're getting the ball out, especially with the size we have inside, and that we are able to rebound the ball and push it up quick in transition."

Smith also wants to get a look at Alleyne and Obrzut even if they don't start. Nike will have 7-0 Jason Jennings, a former player at Arkansas State

"They are in a learning mode. Sometimes that can make you a little hesitant," Smith said. "They are both still learning our system, but they will both be playing a lot."

Obrzut did not play well in UK's Blue-White scrimmage. He's looking forward to a better outing in his first appearance at Rupp Arena.

"The big difference here is how strong the American players are. The players in Europe are not as strong, but they are quicker," Obrzut said. "The game here is a lot faster. I'm still teaching myself how to play with these guys and the more I get to play with them, the better it will be."

Fitch said at last week's Southeastern Conference Media Day that both players were improving quickly.

"They have progressed a whole lot from when practice started," Fitch said. "Our defensive system is not easy to learn. They are still learning where to be, but they are both smart guys. They want to learn and they will ask questions. They are not afraid to make a mistake and then try to correct it."

Kentucky is coming off a season where it swept the SEC regular-season and tournament championships by winning 19 straight games and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1.

The Cats' regular-season opener will be Nov. 21 against Winthrop. They'll also have an exhibition game Nov. 12 against EA Sports.

Tipoff for tonight's game is 7:30 p.m.

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