Undefeated Bulldogs will test Kentucky

January 13, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Coaches almost always overestimate an opponent, especially when they are discussing the opponent with the media.

Yet Kentucky coach Tubby Smith insisted he was not just casually praising Mississippi State when he discussed the Bulldogs' talent and reasons for being 13-0 going into tonight's game with the visiting Wildcats.

"We've got to come with our best game in order to have a chance to win," said Smith. "If we don't (come with our best game), we'll get beat."

The Bulldogs are off to their best overall start in school history and also have Southeastern Conference wins over Mississippi and Arkansas going into tonight's game, which will be on ESPN with Dick Vitale. Still, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury knows not to take anything for granted against Kentucky.


"It's not a game where you have to worry about firing up the players emotionally," Stansbury said. "If you have to find other ways to motivate them, it's going to be a long night. They understand Dick Vitale will be here. But some games take on a different air without us having to do anything. This is one of them.

"Kentucky is always the team you measure your success by. Their starting five is as good, or better, than anyone in the SEC. I've got a team that has found a way to win, but we are not in the class of Kentucky."

Smith isn't so sure. The Bulldogs feature 6-9 Lawrence Roberts, a transfer from Baylor who is averaging 16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

"I'm really impressed with Lawrence Roberts," Smith said. "He has the ability to get his shot off quickly as well as jump over you. He can make jump shots. He has a nice jump hook. He works to get to the boards. He's a real load.

"He gets his shot off so quick that you've got to get to him early. You can't allow him to catch the ball and make his move. If he makes his move, he's going to beat you."

"There's no question he's made progress," Stansbury said. "We needed somebody who could play on the inside, and we knew he would be a great fit for us. And what he was looking for, I knew we would be able to provide for him."

However, Smith warned against thinking Mississippi State is a one-name team. Point guard Tim Bowers, the only returning starter off last year's team, which lost to UK in the SEC Tournament title game, averages 15.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. Seven-foot center Marcus Campbell adds another 9.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Smith said Winsome Frazier and Branden Vincent add athleticism and defense while combining for about 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Smith said even though Mississippi State lost center Mario Austin and point guard Derek Zimmerman off last year's team, this year's team is better.

"They've got all the ingredients. That's why they are 13-0," Smith said.

Kentucky made 23 turnovers in Saturday's win over Vanderbilt. Seniors Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins combined for 19 of those miscues. That's one reason Smith had the team run extra sprints during practice Monday.

"Our guys look for each other, but sometimes they try to do too much," Smith said. "You don't want them to the point that they don't look to make the pass. My whole thing is just to be more patient. We need to understand time and score better in certain situations."

Stansbury thinks Kentucky's passing is a strength, not a weakness. He calls Daniels and Chuck Hayes the nation's best pair of interior passers.

"Height is sometimes overrated," Stansbury said. "They both have good size, but they are so special because of their skills. Daniels just finds a way to get the ball in the hole, and Hayes is just tough. There's no doubt they miss (Marquis) Estill from last year, but Daniels and Hayes have great instincts and just get the job done."

Stansbury also respects UK senior guard Gerald Fitch because of his big-shot ability.

"He's been a great player for three years and there's no question he's made big shots," Stansbury said. "He's a guy with tremendous confidence, and his teammates have confidence in him."

The teams have similar statistics going into tonight's game. State is averaging 77.1 points per game and allowing 63.8 while UK is scoring 75.2 and giving up 61.4. They are both shooting 47 percent from the field.

"This is a big game, no doubt about that," Stansbury said. "Anything is possible, but I know how good Kentucky is. Still, I think we at least have a chance to make it interesting."

State did that two years ago when it fell behind 21-2 before rallying to beat UK in overtime.

"That was a long trip home," Daniels said. "We don't want that to happen again and that should remind us no matter what happens to start the game, anything can happen before it ends."

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