Defense, not rankings, matters to Wildcats

November 12, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Being ranked 11th in the preseason Associated Press rankings didn't seem to impress, or disappoint, Kentucky.

"We haven't even looked at them or discussed them at this point," said UK senior Erik Daniels. "We try to just go out and play ball."

"I don't want to get into that too much," senior point guard Cliff Hawkins said of the rankings. "We'll just wait and see where we are down the road."

Actually, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith is anxious to see where his team is tonight when it plays EA Sports All-Stars in its final exhibition game before its regular-season opener on Nov. 21.


"I've been impressed with their effort and intensity in practice, but we know tomorrow night will be a real test for us," Smith said Tuesday. "EA Sports is a talented team. They have some pretty talented people in their lineup. They will challenge us defensively."

EA Sports will feature 7-0 center Lonnie Jones of Ball State and 6-8 Paul Shirley of Iowa State in the middle along with Mike Chappell of Michigan State and Ricky Price of Duke on the perimeter.

EA Sports has won two of eight exhibition games. It beat St. John's 80-74 and also downed Virginia Tech. It lost 90-78 to Louisville Nov. 3.

Smith was not overly pleased with his team's defense in its first exhibition game when Nike Elite shot 50.7 percent from the field, but he still says the Wildcats are ahead of where they were at this time last year.

"Maybe not based on numbers, but on a maturity level," the Kentucky coach said. "Our big guys are starting to learn, too. We are quick enough to put pressure on the perimeter, but inside is where we are going to have some problems."

Smith may take longer look at Alleyne, Obrzut

That's why Smith might opt to take a longer look at 7-foot freshmen Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut tonight. Alleyne played 15 minutes in the first exhibition game, but Obrzut played less than five because of a back injury.

"We are going to need them to give us the type of post defense and post presence to compete on a consistent basis," Smith said. "They understand the defense. The game is just a lot quicker and more intense than they are used to."

Alleyne admitted he was hesitant at times in UK's first exhibition game. He said it wasn't the pace of the game, but the intensity that impacted him.

"Everybody plays so hard every play," Alleyne said. "I wasn't ready for that. Now I am. I have things to still work on, like any big man would. As a team, I know coach Smith expects us to play better defense and play team basketball."

"We need to get the big guys better in their rotations. They are improving, and they'll be able to help us," Hawkins said.

Sophomore Kelenna Azubuike will start again tonight as Smith will open with Daniels in the middle, but he knows he has to improve his defense if he wants significant playing time this year, especially when Antwain Barbour returns from his suspension.

"Defense is the most important thing here. Defense creates offense and that's what we want to do," Azubuike said. "We don't want to let teams get into their offense. Here you have to be an all-around player and play equally hard on both ends of the floor if you want to play. You can't be just an offensive player or you will be a bench player."

However, Smith is not ignoring his team's offense. The Cats passed the ball well the second half of the first exhibition game and also shot well from 3-point range. Smith wants to see continued improvement tonight.

"We are starting to play together better offensively. The younger players are starting to learn the plays and execute the plays better," Smith said. "As a team, I would say that has been our biggest improvement recently.

"We've gone back to a basic motion offense in practice. We are really trying to do a better job of teaching."

Smith still remembers the mistake he made early last season when he tried to make too many offensive changes. Once he simplified the offense, UK went on a 26-game winning streak.

"We decided not to put a lot in yet," Smith said. "We want to learn what we have in to the best of our ability and execute it as efficiently as we can. Then we might put more in."

Daniels still thinks the offense will come from the defense much like it did last year.

"If we play tough defense, the offense will come to us," Daniels said. "We will get a lot of easy transition baskets. When we are out pressuring guys and running the floor, that's when we play our best. That's why we know if we play defense like we should, the offense will take care of itself."

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