UCLA tradition only ancient history to current Cats

December 04, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - UCLA and Kentucky have been two of college basketball's most successful programs. However, UCLA's previous 11 national championships are little more than a memory for current UK players.

"I have heard the stories, but I don't think it has anything to do with this game," Kentucky senior point guard Cliff Hawkins said Wednesday. "I think our guys, especially the young guys, are excited about making the trip to California. The young guys can't wait to be on national television. We'll be pumped up, but they really are just the next team on our roster."

Kentucky and UCLA meet in a nationally televised game Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., as part of the John Wooden Classic.

"The John Wooden Classic kind of epitomizes what college basketball is all about," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.

This is the 10th Wooden Classic, which is named for the former legendary UCLA coach. The field is the same as it was for the first Wooden Classic.


"But it is a business trip. Real business. We are only going to be there a day or two," Smith said. "There's not a lot of time for anything but basketball."

Kentucky (3-0) reached the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional title game last year before losing to Marquette. UK's senior-dominated team hopes to do even better this year and will face UCLA, Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina over the next five Saturdays.

"We are excited to play every game, but we really get up for those big-name teams and get hyped up to play them," Kentucky sophomore Kelenna Azubuike said. "It will be an honor to go out there and play UCLA. They are one of the greatest teams ever in college basketball."

Hawkins is not as impressed.

"I am familiar with UCLA, John Wooden and their tradition," Hawkins said. "But we are trying to start our own tradition here. We are not going to dwell on that too much."

Their own tradition? Kentucky is college basketball's winningest team and does have six national titles of its own.

"Well, we want to start a new one (tradition)," Hawkins said.

"I had not really thought that much about what we have, but it is definitely true," Azubuike said. "I'll probably think more about it now. We're not bad, either. when it comes to tradition."

What about a new tradition such as Hawkins suggested?

"I don't know what he means. That's just him talking," Azubuike said.

Better defense would make Smith happy

Smith will be happy if Kentucky can just improve its defense. The Wildcats had trouble stopping Marshall and guard Ronnie Dawn in its 89-76 victory Monday in Cincinnati.

"Our primary need is to play better defense, screen better and do a lot better overall on defense," Smith said. "We had major breakdowns on offense and defense (against Marshall), but mainly on defense.

"We took a lot of gambles and got out of position on defense. Dribble penetration hurt us. We had some major breakdowns. The last three games their post people did a good job screening us."

Smith and his players think increased intensity against UCLA, which has defeated Vermont 68-67 and UC Riverside 84-70 this year, will improve.

"I think this game has a little more excitement to it," Hawkins said. "We are playing a team we know we can't just show up and beat, and you are playing on TV for the whole world to see. Guys are going to be fired up and ready to play.

"This game is why guys come to play for Kentucky. Not everybody gets to experience this. When you get your chance in a game that is being talked about on ESPN all week, you better make the most of it."

"Every game means a lot to me, but the big games do produce more pressure and excitement," Azubuike said. "But we're happy to play these games because they are fun."

Smith thnks his players knew they would beat Winthrop, Tennessee Tech and Marshall even if they played poorly. He hopes they understand that's not the case in this game.

"Just playing a name team like UCLA and being part of the John Wooden Classic should inspire you to work harder and be at your best," Smith said. "I don't think that was totally the case the first three games. I think we can be better, and we have to be better in this game."

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