Rival coaches praise Smith for Cats' 21-game SEC win streak

January 16, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Because of the parity throughout the Southeastern Conference, rival coaches refer to Kentucky's 21-game win streak in conference play with words like phenomenal, extraordinary and remarkable.

Kentucky has not lost to an SEC foe since falling to South Carolina in the 2002 SEC Tournament. The Wildcats won 16 straight regular-season games last year, swept three conference tourney games and have started this year's SEC race 2-0 going into Saturday's home game against Georgia.

"It's an extraordinary feat. It's outstanding to win 21 in a row against anyone, but to do it in the SEC is extraordinary," said Georgia coach Dennis Felton Thursday during the SEC coaches teleconference. "They are who they are because of their approach to the game. They defend, rebound and compete with team toughness.

"I would never be surprised if Kentucky loses a game not because of any shortcomings on their part, but because we have arguably the best conference in the country. Yet they just keep winning."


While league coaches praised Kentucky's talent the last two years, they gave UK coach Tubby Smith even more credit for UK's success.

"It is incredible what Tubby has done," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "He has great talent, no question. But I think that talent owes him a debt of gratitude, too. He has done a great job keeping them grounded and pushing them."

"What they have done is truly remarkable," Florida coach Billy Donovan, who used to be on Rick Pitino's staff at UK with Smith. "They have not had one hiccup in 21 games and that says a lot for their preparation.

"I think the one thing about Kentucky the last two years that has been dominant in our league is their wealth of experience. They've got a very, very dangerous combination of one, a great coach, and then they have guys who are really talented who have played in a lot of big games and have a wealth of experience."

LSU coach John Brady said Smith has been able to win with a team last year that many considered the league's most talented as well as team this year that many college basketball analysts questioned before the season started.

"It's a tribute to Tubby Smith and his ability to get players to play hard," Brad said of UK's win streak, which is the fourth longest in SEC history. "You have to compliment the Kentucky players, but you still have to compliment Tubby for getting his team to play hard night in and night out. That doesn't just happen in games.

"You have to be lucky (to win 21 in a row), but when you work hard and prepare, you get some breaks. For Tubby to get his team to do what it has done is a tribute to him and his ability to coach."

Smith said the key to winning SEC games has been consistency and not dwelling on any one game too long.

"I think the key is not getting too high or too low when we have a poor performance or good performance," Smith said. "Hopefully we have taught them to play with the right sportsmanship. Even though you had a big win, you have to come back the next day and produce."

Smith said he's not been surprised that Kentucky has a 21-game conference win streak because his team expects to win every game. However, he has been surprised that his team has not played better overall this year.

"We understand the streak eventually has to come to an end," Smith said. "Winning 21 straight is a tremendous accomplishment. I really am not surprised (that we've won 21). I am surprised that we are not playing better for extended periods.

"We've got to stop thinking about holding leads and start playing to win and not to lose. I am worried now that our guys are worrying about maybe losing and the pressure is building on them to be as good, or better, than past teams."

Donovan says Kentucky's success is good for the league because it gives every team a measuring stick to judge its own progress.

"I think it is great to have a program of Kentucky's magnitude that you understand the level that you've got to get your program to," Donovan said. "If you are playing Kentucky, you know you are playing one of the best teams in the country. It makes you realize where your program is and where you are trying to get to one day."

Odom says Kentucky's fan base might sometimes give it an edge on the road that other teams don't have, but he also said UK is more immune to pressure than other teams.

"Kentucky is used to being the hunted, and they handle that mantle well. Until several teams get to the point that they can challenge them, you are going to see more Kentucky dominance, not less."

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