Vaught's Views: Ready or not, Cats on their way to No. 1

December 14, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

DETROIT - Whether they want it, or even deserve it, Kentucky's players know the No. 1 ranking likely will be theirs Monday.

The Wildcats flexed enough muscle at the right times in front a record 78,129 fans Saturday and beat Michigan State 79-74 for their fifth straight win this season. Now they should be the new No. 1 team in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' poll Monday.

"Rankings are only rankings," said Kentucky junior Chuck Hayes, who had his almost customary double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. "It just puts a bigger target on our backs. If it comes, we know not to pay a lot of attention to it. We learned that last year."

That's when UK went into the NCAA Tournament riding a 23-game win streak and ranked No. 1, only to lose to Marquette in the Midwest Regional title game.


Besides, UK will be the fourth No. 1 team in as many weeks. Last week's No. 1, Florida, not only lost to Maryland Wednesday, but it also fell at Louisville on Saturday.

"You can't let a ranking fool you," said Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins, who had 13 points and four assists. "It's not exactly like we are playing perfect basketball."

True, but at least Kentucky played well enough to withstand a spirited Michigan State rally and got a win thanks to expected play from veterans and some unexpected play from freshman Lukasz Obrzut, who was far from spectacular but solid enough to help compensate for Erik Daniels' second-half foul troubles.

"I am not going to presume anything," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said when asked about possibly being No. 1. "It would be a great honor, but it is more based on past accomplishments. We are more concerned about the future."

Smith doesn't vote on the coaches' poll. If he did, would he vote his unbeaten team No. 1?

"I don't have a vote, so I don't have to answer," Smith said. "There are a lot of good teams. It's kind of early to really look at the rankings. But if those coaches see us being deemed No. 1, we would appreciate it."

The game at Ford Field, the home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, certainly had the feel of a Final Four, which is exactly what Michigan State and Kentucky hoped when this game was arranged.

The downtown Detroit arena, which will host the 2006 Super Bowl and the 2009 Final Four, was nearly filled to capacity, mainly by Michigan State fans, and it certainly gave a CBS-TV audience a picturesque setting for an entertaining game that made it easy to forget this is a football stadium.

"It had a good feel to it," Smith said. "They did a magnificent job. It did not have the feel, or look, of a dome. It worked well for us on the court."

Both teams had been struggling offensively, which made the 49-42 halftime score in Kentucky's favor a major surprise. However, the second half turned into more of a bump-and-grind routine that has been customary in past UK-State rivalries.

It looked like Kentucky may have literally shot the lights out in the first half. UK went 20-for-30 from the field, a 67 percent mark, and the Ford Field lights were slow to come back on after being dimmed for a halftime show. Once the lights did come back, both teams turned up the defensive intensity.

The Spartans, who had already lost to Kansas, Duke and Oklahoma this season, cut what had been a 15-point lead at 34-19 with six minutes left in the first half to only 55-51 five minutes into the second half and had the margin down to two points midway of the half.

Not only that, UK had foul trouble and Daniels got his third and fourth fouls in a 23-second span with 8 minutes, 41 seconds still to play. That's when Obrzut managed to at least provide enough inside defense to contain State center Paul Davis, who finished with 24 points and 14-for-14 shooting at the foul line.

"He did what we asked," Smith said.

So did Smith's veterans. Whenever Michigan State was in position to tie the game, there was Gerald Fitch making a shot on his way to a 25-point effort, Hawkins getting an assist or Hayes pulling off a rebound or getting two of his 17 points.

"It was a big-time win in front of a record crowd," Hayes said. "It shows we can overcome any adversity. When we needed defense, we got a stop. When we need to make a shot, we made it. That's how you win."

UK's Big Four - Fitch, Hayes, Hawkins and Daniels - combined for 71 of UK's 79 points and 22 of its 28 rebounds. Just get used to that. No matter how much Smith talks about wanting to develop depth, there's just not much there - and that's without Kelenna Azubuike getting in early foul trouble as he did Saturday.

But there's no rule saying UK can't win with a shorter rotation than usual and it's becoming obvious that the Big Four understand that.

"It got loud here, and Mich-igan State really played us tough. But we are taught to block everything out and just make plays," Hawkins said.

Which is why a team that mainly depended on four players once again found a way to win.

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