Vaught's Views: UK isn't going away

February 05, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

If one game changes the season for the University of Kentucky basketball team this season, it was Tuesday.

The Wildcats were again consistently inconsistent - build a lead, lose a lead and then battle just to stay in the game - at Florida. Yet unlike the previous game at Vanderbilt, this time the Cats regrouped and won 68-65.

Instead of losing for the fourth time overall and third time in Southeastern Conference play, Kentucky protected its No. 9 ranking, stayed in the SEC Eastern Division race and got a badly needed dose of confidence with its playmaking in the final five minutes against Florida.

Maybe it's just time that Florida coach Billy Donovan admits he's not going to beat Kentucky. He's lost seven of the last eight to the Wildcats even though in almost every game, Florida has had the so-called superior talent.


However, Kentucky has one thing Florida does not have - mental toughness. Tubby Smith can question his team's physical toughness, but not its tenacity.

Point guard Cliff Hawkins made three late turnovers in the Vanderbilt loss. This time he made the key steal in the final minute to put Kentucky ahead of the Gators.

Perhaps Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings understands Kentucky basketball better than many Big Blue fans do.

Stallings provides insights

Stallings could have applauded his own coaching exploits after his team rallied to beat Kentucky. He could have proclaimed it a career-changing win for him. Instead, he offered some insights last week into why Kentucky probably was able to win at Florida.

"They play in front of sold-out crowds every time on the road, and yet they just win," Stallings said. "I would rather play them in an empty gym than in front of a capacity crowd. They thrive in that atmosphere. That's just fuel for them. It no more bothers them than getting up in the morning.

"They are the only team in the league, in my opinion, that plays a game on the road totally unaffected by the crowd. That's been my impression for years."

While he won't dispute that Tubby Smith knows the Wildcats far better than he does, Stallings wants no part of thinking Kentucky is not a "tough" team.

"Our impression of Tubby's teams are that they are tough, tough, tough, tough. And they are clean," Stallings said. "They play hard and they play clean. There is no cheap-shotting. They are clean, tough players that just know how to win."

Smith laid the law down to his team Monday. He warned that careless mistakes and sloppy play would no longer be tolerated. He let his starters know if they were not playing well, there would be a designated reserve at every position ready to come in the game.

UK's starters still played the bulk of the minutes, but this time they did not lose energy when Florida seemed to grasp control of the game.

It was Kentucky, not Florida, pressing the action in the final minutes.

Even better, Kentucky's sense of urgency was obvious. Players on the bench were standing and encouraging teammates far more often than in previous games. The reserves locked arms and watched the final minutes anxiously. The nonchalant attitude that had been seen along the bench in some games was nowhere to be found.

Don't forget that Kentucky was also 15-3 a year ago. Of course, last year's team just kept winning.

This team might not be able to match last year's win total, but it is still way too early to write off the Wildcats as Tuesday's win proved.

"If anyone thinks Kentucky is going to go away because of a loss or two, they just don't know basketball," Stallings said last week. "Those guys are immune to outside pressure and they know how to win. Teams like that just keep playing, and winning."

Just ask Florida.

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