Vaught's Views: Smith's new tone sends message to Wildcats

December 18, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - For the first time this season, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith was far from jovial during his weekly session with media members.

He wasn't rude or abusive, but missing were the smiles and witty one-liners that had been part of Smith's weekly press conferences all season.

Maybe it has something to be with his team being No. 1 in the coaches' poll - the fourth team to have that honor this season - going into Saturday's game with Indiana at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Kentucky is 5-0 and coming off a 79-74 win over Michigan State where it shot 60 percent. But Smith started his press conference by saying there were a lot of things his team needed to improve on.


Naturally, that prompted the obvious question from me: "Coach, could you tell us what your team needs to improve on specifically?"

Smith didn't take long to answer.

"Everything. Not one particular thing. Passing, shooting defense, rebounding," Smith said.

Again, that prompted what I thought was the next obvious question.

"Coach, how have you won five games?"

Smith was ready.

"Don't know. We've been lucky, I guess," he said.

That's called putting on the game face for Indiana and making sure his players will see that even though this might be the week they are taking final exams, the coach is still going to demand perfection.

While Smith didn't put that infamous stare on anyone Wednesday, he did make it sound like a miracle that his team is 5-0.

The Wildcats have become an inside-oriented team with the majority of its scoring coming in transition or inside the paint. Is Smith concerned what might happen when an opponent can take away that inside game?

"Everything is a concern," he said. (Apparently that was referring back to the opening question, where he listed every phase of the game as areas his team had to improve.) "We've been working hard trying to get guys better."

So the lack of consistent outside scoring is not a concern?

"It doesn't bother me as long as we win," Smith said. "I don't care if we take any (perimeter shots) as long as we win."

What about Gerald Fitch? He's shooting 44 percent from 3-point range (15-for-34) and averaging 20.4 points per game even though he's taking just 14 shots per game. Should he take more of a star attitude and demand the ball more?

"I don't want that," Smith said. "I want him to play with confidence within the system. He'll be fine and get all the points he needs and we need doing that."

Of course, Smith did let his feelings for this team slip a few times.

He said Chuck Hayes was "as good a rebounder for his size as I've worked with" when he was talking about UK's need for better overall rebounding. He said point guard Cliff Hawkins had been a key to UK's offensive success because he can "make perimeter shots" now that he couldn't two years ago.

Perhaps his best line was about Fitch's shooting prowess.

"He's been a good shooter ever since he got here," Smith said. "When he takes good shots, he's as good a shooter as there is. When he takes bad shots, he's as bad a shooter as there is."

Simple but effective words that mirror Smith's philosophy. Everyone keeps saying his team is too small and too thin to be a national title contender. All UK does is keep winning.

The No. 1 ranking won't change that. Remember, Kentucky was also No. 1 when it lost to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional final last year. Smith's veterans know worrying about being No. 1 three weeks before the start of Southeastern Conference play would be a huge mistake.

Besides, those guys want Smith to stay in a good mood, too.

"As far as I know, coach has been happy," senior Erik Daniels said. "If you guys got him in a bad mood, I'm going to quit talking because he's been great with us.

"We want to win not because we are No. 1, but because a practice after a loss is never fun. Coach never likes losing."

Especially when his team has just gone to No. 1 and is getting ready to play a rival it has beaten in eight of the last nine years.

Central Kentucky News Articles