Vaught's Views: Real season will start now for UK

December 02, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky is finally ready to start its basketball season. A quick look at the schedule might make you think the No. 9 Wildcats have already started their season because they've played three games, including Monday night's 89-76 win over Marshall in Cincinnati.

But if you take a close look at the schedule, you'll see that the real schedule starts Saturday when UK plays UCLA in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif. That starts a streak of Super Saturdays for Tubby Smith's team that will see the Cats play Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina in successive weeks.

Those teams will test the unbeaten Wildcats far more than Winthrop, Tennessee Tech and Marshall did. Sure, Marshall hit some 3-point shots early to take a lead midway through the first half before Kentucky went on a 9-0 run. Marshall also made a rally early in the second half to cut into UK's lead and trailed by just four points midway through the second half.


But Marshall was outmanned and even when the score was close, UK never was in any real danger of losing. Kentucky won't have that luxury in the Super Saturday games. Instead, the upcoming games will let Smith see just how well his team can play and whether a small, quick lineup without a lot of proven depth really can hold its own with some of the nation's best teams.

Michigan State and Indiana both figure to test Kentucky's physical toughness. Louisville should test UK's fast pace and ballhandling. North Carolina will test a little bit of everything.

UCLA might turn out to be the easiest opponent of the five, but even this game will be at a so-called neutral site in California. Don't forget, too, that UK will play Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit in front of 75,000 mostly-Michigan State fans. The Indiana game will be played in front of about 30,000 fans in the RCA Dome.

Cats should have gotten wake-up call against Marshall

Kentucky certainly should have gotten the wake-up call it needed against Marshall. Much of Monday's game it was the Thundering Herd that looked more aggressive - and even quicker at times.

But a letdown was inevitable. The U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati has about as much atmosphere as a medieval dungeon and it's almost surprising that 13,000 fans showed up. The Cats had scored 108 points in their previous game and Marshall had already lost to North Carolina-Wilmington.

Plus, the big games, the ones that will determine UK's positioning in the national rankings going into Southeastern Conference play, are waiting.

"But there's no excuse for ever looking ahead," Kentucky senior point guard Cliff Hawkins said before UK played Marshall. "If you look ahead, that's when you have problems. With all the upsets you've seen in college basketball already, you know you better be ready."

Hawkins, like several teammates, regularly watches college games on TV, especially if a future Kentucky opponent is playing.

"I love basketball and like watching games. Plus, you can analyze how a team is playing when you watch them on TV," Hawkins said.

If any future Kentucky opponents managed to see Monday's game, they would not have fear in their hearts today.

The Cats were lackadaisical, almost lazy, at times on defense, especially inside, and allowed Marshall to get too many open shots. Kentucky did get better bench production than it did in its previous game against Tennessee Tech, especially from Antwain Barbour. But Smith's bench was still not overly potent and certainly not nearly as good as it needs to be for Kentucky to be a factor in March Madness.

Yet while this game shows that Kentucky has weaknesses, so does every team at this time of year. Remember last season? The Cats looked far more vulnerable then when they stumbled to a 6-3 start before going on that remarkable 26-win streak.

Smith is still tinkering with the lineup. Players are still learning new roles. That's why the Super Saturday games will help define Kentucky's season.

Win or lose, those games are going to show the Cats even more about what it takes to be a top 10 game than Monday's matchup with Marshall did and that's why for Kentucky, the real season starts against UCLA on Saturday.

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