No-name opener Winthrop lacks big name, but has talent to test

November 21, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

"Wimp taught me that you needed to schedule teams with great names that were not that good," said Hobbs. "We haven't done that. We've scheduled a team without a great name that is very good."

Kentucky opens its season tonight by hosting Winthrop, a team from the Big South Conference that has played in the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years and returns four starters off last season's 20-10 team.

"Winthrop has been the cream of the crop in the Big South the last five years," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "They are a very well-coached team and they'll present some problems for us. They have the talent to be a real test for us."

Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes admitted he knew little about Winthrop, but he also watched Yale almost beat Connecticut earlier this week in the Preseason NIT.


"That's a place that does not get a lot of TV time or premier players. There's no way for us to know much about them," Hayes said. "But I know they'll come in here looking at this game as their chance to get a lot of national exposure. We know to expect a tough game.

"Small schools are not intimidated by the so-called big-name schools. They don't care who you play for. They still come out to beat you."

Winthrop senior Tyrone Walker was named the Big South's preseason player of the year after leading the Eagles in scoring (13.2 points per game) and rebounds (7.1) last season. He was also second in the league in blocked shots.

Marcus Cooke, a former junior college transfer, added 7.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year while 6-10 junior Josh Grant, who blocked 66 shots as a freshman, added 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds off the bench last year.

Starting center Billy Houston, a 59 percent shooter from the field last year as a freshman, averaged 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last year. The other returning starter is shooting guard James Shuler.

The newcomer to the starting lineup will be junior point guard Ivan Jenkins. However, he had 70 assists last year, averaged 8.3 points per game and made a team-high 54 3-point shots. He's also an 87 percent shooter at the foul line.

"We've just got to go out and play Kentucky basketball," sophomore Kelenna Azubuike said. "We have to play like we are playing the best team in the country. We've got to play defense and make sure we get out and run."

Hobbs says there's no doubt Kentucky has speed, especially when it starts a small lineup with Erik Daniels at center.

"We do have speed," Hobbs said. "It can be hard to keep up with us. But we've also got to play smart."

The Cats will still be without senior forward Antwain Barbour, who is serving the final game of a three-game suspension for an off-court incident last summer, in tonight's game. However, Smith said Thursday that Azubuike, who tore a tendon in the pinky finger on his left hand Monday, should be fine.

"It has not affected him much," Smith said. "He's not missed a beat. He's playing with the same level of intensity. He's showing a willingness to play defense and the finger has not affected his play at all."

Smith isn't worried about how his team will approach this season after last year's 32-4 finish that included a 26-game win streak and sweep of the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships. UK was ranked No. 1 when it lost to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region final.

"This is a whole different year with a whole different set of circumstances," the Kentucky coach said. "Now we have to have some other players take the lead. It's a matter of finding our identity and building on that.

"I think these guys are hungry because they appreciate what they accomplished last year, but they were also disappointed with the way it ended. They are hungry to follow that up and finish better this year."

Kentucky was 1-1 in exhibition play last year and then started the season 6-3. While the players want to downplay the expectations many have for this team, they know this team has the potential for a big year.

"If I had to give an honest answer, I would say this team is a little ahead of last year," Hayes said. "We are tired of beating up on each other in practice. It gets boring. We want to beat up on someone else and really find out where we are."

Central Kentucky News Articles