Eastern's style may help UK

December 23, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - The focus is supposed to be on Eastern Kentucky, but even Kentucky coach Tubby Smith acknowledges that tonight's game could help his Wildcats Saturday against Louisville.

"They are a good, balanced team that plays a lot of people," said Smith. "They really get out and pressure you in the full court and in the half court. They are an extension of (coach) Travis (Ford) and the way he used to play - high octane and always pressuring you.

"Eastern Kentucky has a similar style to what we will probably see (against Louisville) on Saturday. They're uptempo, shoot more 3s, pressing and changing defenses.

"We have to do a better job recognizing defenses and being better prepared to attack. Changing defenses has a way of slowing you down. We probably won't get as many opportunities in transition because they are a pretty good transition team."


Ford is in his fourth year as Eastern's head coach. His Colonels (3-4) are coming off a 90-56 win over Savannah State Saturday that avenged a 63-62 road loss suffered 12 days earlier.

Ford's team lost only 64-58 at Saint Louis and 67-66 at Winthrop, a team that lost 65-44 at Kentucky but won at Georgia.

The Eastern coach knows what to expect tonight. He played three years for the Wildcats and led UK to a 1993 Final Four appearance. His team lost 94-79 to Kentucky three years ago.

"When you go against teams that are obviously more talented, deeper, bigger, stronger, faster and quicker, you've just got to rely on playing hard and playing smart," Ford said. "I just hope we can compete, represent our university well, our basketball program well and take advantage of the opportunity to play in one of the greatest college arenas in the country."

Kentucky is ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll and second in The Associated Press poll again this week. For the second straight week, UK actually got more first-place votes in the AP poll than No. 1 Connecticut.

Still, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith refused to predict anything but a competitive game tonight during his press conference Monday.

"Eastern Kentucky has people that can make shots. I've been very impressed with them," Smith said. "They are holding people to 39 percent from the floor and 23 percent from 3, which is a lot better than we've been doing defensively. They are plus 11 on the boards, which is better than we've been doing. And although their record may not indicate it, they've lost some very tight games."

Guard Matt Witt leads Eastern in scoring (13.7 points per game) and assists (36). He had a season-high nine assists in Eastern's most recent win. He's a 51.9 percent shooter (14-for-27) from 3-point range.

"I've really been impressed with Witt," Smith said. "He is their spark. He puts the ball on the floor and creates a lot of problems with his ability to shoot from deep."

Forward Michael Haney averages 12.7 points and a team-high 7.6 rebounds per game and is shooting 62.9 percent from the field. Jon Bentley (9.6 points) is a 66 percent shooter.

"It's not hard at all to get ready for this game," Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "Anyone can beat us. Look at some of the scores across the country every night. Coach Smith wants to see us play a complete game for 40 minutes and that's what we are focusing on doing."

Guard Gerald Fitch, UK's top scorer, says the Cats have too much experience to take any game lightly even with rival Louisville waiting on Saturday.

"We have a one-game tunnel vision," Fitch said. "We are going to take this like any other game. Our coaches have made it clear to us that we still have a lot of work to do."

Kentucky outscored Indiana by 33 points in the second half of Saturday's rout. That prompted forward Chuck Hayes to say it reminded him of the way UK's defense dominated teams last season.

"Way off-base," Smith said. "That's what I meant about a false sense of accomplishment. I saw something different from a coach's perspective. It was a comfortable win, but there are a lot of things we need to improve on."

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