UCLA's size a challenge for Kentucky

December 05, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Kentucky's small lineup has enabled the No. 8 Wildcats to win three games this season.

Now comes the first "big" test for coach Tubby Smith's smaller, quicker team.

Kentucky will face UCLA and 7-0 center Michael Fey on Saturday in the 10th annual John Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif. The Bruins also feature 6-6 guard Cedric Bozeman and 6-7 forward Dijon Thompson.

"They are pretty talented, and they are pretty physical," Smith said. "It's going to be a big challenge for us to contain them inside since we don't have a real big front line."

Smith has counted on Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes, last year's starting forwards, to play inside more. While Kentucky is averaging 87 points per game, it has also allowed its last two opponents to score 81 and 76, respectively. Kentucky opponents have also blocked 12 shots to just six by the Wildcats.


Kentucky opponents had much more trouble scoring inside last year because of the defensive presence of Marquis Estill and Jules Camara, UK's top two shot blockers the last two years.

"People are willing to attack inside more because they don't fear their shot getting blocked," Smith said. "We only have six blocks. That tells the story right there."

New UCLA coach Ben Howland, who led Pittsburgh to the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinals, will be missing two key players Saturday. Freshman Trevor Ariza started two exhibition games but will be out at least another week because of a lung problem, and senior forward T.J. Cummings is academically ineligible until the second semester.

"They are without a couple of key players," Smith said. "We have to evaluate and decide how we want to play up tempo and push the ball. We got some easy baskets in transition (against Marshall), but we also gave up some easy shots."

Smith says his inside players must do a better job of not letting opponents set screens to free players for open shots.

"It's never one person's fault," Smith said. "We've not had enough repitition in practice. We just are not physical enough. Guys like Erik and Chuck are trying to use finesse to do the job. Sometimes you've got to use sheer force."

Point guard Cliff Hawkins might have to do that, too, against Bozeman, a three-year starter who has been plagued by injuries in his first two seasons.

"It will be a challenge, but it will be fun," said Hawkins, who leads the Southeastern Conference in assists at 8.3 per game. "I am looking forward to it. I'm actually wondering how well he'll handle the pressure I put on him.

"Plus, he has to guard me. I like playing bigger guys. They sometimes have more trouble with me than I do with them."

This will be a homecoming game for Hayes, who is from Modesto, Calif. Smith said he hopes Hayes will show friends and family a little more physical play than what he has displayed the first three games, even though he's averaging 11.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.

"He has to learn to create more space for himself," Smith said. "He has a tendency to get too far under the basket, and he exposes the ball too much. He has a tendency to lead with the ball, and I don't care if you are 7-foot (tall), you will get your shot blocked doing that."

The Cats know that while UCLA is not a nationally ranked team, it will be the best team they have played and their defense must improve.

"I think if we play defense and get after them, I feel like we can beat anybody," Hawkins said.

"It's just a matter of time before we get our defensive chemistry going and everything comes together," said guard Gerald Fitch, UK's top scorer at 24 points per game.

This is the first of five straight Saturday games against big-name opponents on national television for Kentucky. The Cats lost to Michigan State and Louisville in a similar stretch last year.

"These games will tell us how tough we are and how mentally prepared we are for the rest of the year," Hawkins said. "I think the next few weeks will determine how well our season goes by how well we respond in these big-game situations."

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