Vaught's Views: Vitale staying with Cats

January 09, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Dick Vitale knows how good the Southeastern Conference is again this season. He knows how impressive the SEC was against non-league competition and that it has four teams currently ranked in the top 25.

However, Vitale has not let anything change this opinion about who has the best team in the SEC.

"The championship still goes through Lexington, Ky.," said Vitale, an ESPN college basketball analyst. "If you want to win the championship, you still have to beat the Cats and that won't be easy. Until someone shows me they can beat the Cats, I still rate Kentucky as the premier club in the SEC."

Vitale will be at Mississippi State Tuesday night when Kentucky plays its first SEC road game against the Bulldogs, who will be 13-0 if they beat visiting Arkansas Saturday.

"There's going to be a lot of excitement in Starkville for that game," Vitale said. "Rick Stansbury really has a good club. It's an athletic, physical team that can beat anyone at home. They have the league's biggest impact newcomer in Lawrence Roberts, a transfer from Baylor. He's a big plus for them and could create a lot of problems for Kentucky in the middle."


He also says Vanderbilt, the team Kentucky opens SEC play against Saturday, is better than many know. The Commodores beat Auburn 59-53 Wednesday.

"They have the best player in the conference in Matt Freije. He's a special, special player," Vitale said. "They are undefeated, but because most of their wins have been at home nobody has paid a lot of attention to them. But they blew out TCU on the road. They are for real. They might have come out of nowhere, but I think they are a legitimate NCAA Tournament team."

He also cited Auburn and LSU as teams that should be solid again, especially at home.

Florida was the team picked last year to beat Kentucky and was picked again this season in some preseason polls. Don't count Vitale as a Florida backer until the Gators show they can beat Kentucky, something they have not done the last five times the teams have played.

"Florida has a contrasting style to Kentucky. They do it with offense where Kentucky does it with defense," Vitale said. "Florida needs more defensive consistency and toughness. Florida certainly will be a major obstacle for Kentucky, but they have to show they can beat Kentucky. They have not been able to do that yet and may not be able to this year, either."

So what does Vitale like about Kentucky even though UK coach Tubby Smith again Thursday complained about everything from his team's defense to a lack of size to a lack of depth to not enough offense.

"They have that toughness, defense and consistency that just makes them so tough to beat in big games," Vitale said. "An obvious area of concern has to be the offense and their lack of ability to put points on the board in some games. But I still like Kentucky."

Want more about why he favors UK?

"One reason is Tubby Smith. He's one of the game's great coaches," Vitale said. "He can make adjustments, especially when he's dealing with adversity. I thought last year he would have a tough time recovering after his team got pounded by Louisville, but yet they bounced back beautifully and ran the table in the SEC, which is unheard of because the SEC is so good.

"That was a special accomplishment. To do that again would be tough, or maybe even impossible. But I still think they are the team to beat."

What else?

"I love (Gerald) Fitch. He makes big shots. He can give you points in pressure situations and is not afraid to take a big shot," Vitale said.

Anything else?

"Another kid I really like is Chuck Hayes," Vitale said. "He's just a warrior. He's on my all-defensive team. He comes after you and shuts you down. He has a winner's mentality."

Not that Vitale doesn't see a potential flaw in UK's lack of productive depth.

"No matter how well Tubby coaches, Tubby has got to get some better bench play," Vitale said. "They've got to get some guys on the bench to be productive. Sometime soon somebody has to help them more. They really need one of the big kids (Lukasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne) to give them some good minutes. That's where they really need help."

Yet Vitale easily sees the Cats as a potential Final Four team.

"More than ever, the national championship race is wide open," Vitale said. "I would still give a slight edge to Connecticut, but there are a lot of teams, including Kentucky, that could be right in that championship mix when the season ends. You never write off Kentucky and Tubby Smith, especially this year."

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