Vaught's Views: UK proves it has plenty of potential

November 05, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Was it really just a year ago that there was so much pessimism about the University of Kentucky basketball program?

That's when Tubby Smith's team did the unthinkable and not only lost an exhibition game, but also needed a 3-point shot in the final seconds to win its other exhibition game. If that wasn't enough, Smith's team was embarrassed 81-63 at Louisville to drop its record to 6-3.

Of course, that team then won 26 straight games, climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings and won three games in the NCAA Tournament.

That history lesson is offered as a reminder to anyone ready to put Kentucky into the Final Four based on Tuesday's 107-89 exhibition victory over Team Nike. Yet it's going to be hard for Kentucky fans not to be giddy over this team's potential.


Smith boldly predicted two weeks ago that this team could be better than last year's team because it had more weapons despite the loss of Keith Bogans, its leading scorer, and Marquis Estill, its inside scorer.

Guess what? He may be exactly right.

Guard Gerald Fitch dedicated the game to his grandmother, who died Sunday, and had 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Erik Daniels, another senior, showed the weight and muscle he added in the offseason suited him well as he had 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Need more? Then go to sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, who had 14 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Or senior point guard Cliff Hawkins. His line - 17 points, 8-for-10 shooting, four assists, two steals, one blocked shot, no turnovers, 26 minutes. Throw in the usual steady contributions from Chuck Hayes - nine points, 11 rebounds and three assists - and Kentucky showcased all those weapons.

Nike Elite coach Bill Frieder, the former coach at Michigan and Arizona State, came away impressed with Kentucky.

"Every time we did something bad, they made us pay"

"They got a real nice team. Every time we did something bad, they made us pay," Frieder said.

Kentucky's most impressive attribute may have been how hard it played. Just as the Cats had in their own Blue-White intrasquad game, they hit the court running and never let up. They didn't always play well, but they played hard and showed the same chemistry that keyed last year's success.

"We just tried to find the guy with the hot hand and get the ball to him," said Hawkins. "The effort was there. We have that chemistry. We've all played a lot together and know what it takes to win. The win wasn't as easy as the score shows. We just played as a team and guys were making shots."

Kentucky was 46-for-83 from the field, a 55.4 percent mark, and 8-for-21 from 3-point range thanks to Fitch's 4-for-7 performance.

"Overall it was a fairly good game," Smith said.

Fairly good?

"I was disappointed with our defense," the Kentucky coach said. "We gave up too many lay-ups. We have a lot of work to do. It's still a work in progress."

But it is a work that could become a masterpiece by March Madness if two big pieces come together. The small lineup Smith used most of Tuesday's game is going to create havoc for opposing teams with its tenacious defense and ability to run the court. However, if 7-foot freshmen centers Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut improve and provide a dominant inside presence, Kentucky could really be special.

Alleyne had six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. He was often slow to the boards and did not always get to the right spot on defense. However, he did alter shots.

Obrzut was limited to just seven minutes after a strained back muscle he suffered in practice Monday started bothering him more than Smith expected. He did hit a nice turn-around bank shot and after he blocked a shot, and he was talking a little Polish smack. That might not be exactly what Smith wanted, but it shows the fearless attitude he has and why he just might be able to hold his own against more experienced physical players.

"They are both about at the same place," Smith said. "They've got a long way to go."

Fitch played superb game, then grief over grandmother's death hit him

True, but Smith can't hide that he likes this team a lot. Fitch played a superb game, then broke down and sobbed on the bench at the end of the game when his grief over his grandmother obviously hit him. He was not available to the media after the game, but Smith noted that Fitch wanted to be with his "extended family" at this crucial time.

Two years ago the Cats may have had as much, or more, talent. That team, though, did not have any team chemistry. This team does.

"I was pleased with how we played. Coach was pleased, too," Hawkins said. "As long as he's happy, I'm happy. He was smiling and we could tell he was happy."

Then Hawkins issued a reminder that the best has yet to come because UK was without suspended senior Antwain Barbour.

"We've got guys who can fill it up, run the floor, play defense and do about anything else," Hawkins said. "Antwain was not even in the lineup yet. We've got a lot of weapons to unleash."

Which is why it's hard not to think how good this team that can shoot, pass, rebound, play defense and get along can be only a year after almost everyone was wondering just how bad the Cats might be.

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