Vaught's Views: Season has been 'stressful' for Smith

February 18, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Last year it was a loving, kind Tubby Smith who watched Kentucky win 26 straight games, climb to No. 1 in the national rankings and go into the NCAA Tournament as the team many considered the one to beat.

Even today Smith still believes that if leading scorer Keith Bogans had not injured his ankle in a Midwest Regional semifinal win over Wisconsin, the Wildcats would have won the national title instead of losing to Marquette in the next round.

Smith has not been nearly as compassionate with this year's 17-4 team. He's accused Erik Daniels of being "scared" of physical play. He called point guard Cliff Hawkins "useless" after one game. He said sophomore Kelenna Azubuike "looked like Tarzan but played like Jane" before one game.

So what happened to the gentler Smith who appeared to mellow last year just as his team started playing its best basketball?


Is he being tougher because his team is older? Does he think he has to be more critical to motivate this team? Has his team underachieved?

"It's probably a combination of all that," Smith said Tuesday. "We've been in a lot of close games. It's kind of hard to relax, win or lose.

"It has been pretty stressful, more so than last year. Maybe that's manifested in me being more negative. I am human. I have to make myself see the positive things we've accomplished, which is quite a bit."

Kentucky dominated many games last year. Its biggest Southeastern Conference win this season is a 12-point win over Vanderbilt. The only other two double-digit wins were by 10 points over Mississippi and 11 over Alabama.

The Wildcats have three one-point conference wins and another by three points.

It was the same before SEC play started. Kentucky beat UCLA by two points and Michigan State and North Carolina by five.

"We just don't have the team we had last year," Smith said. "We are not good enough to dominate people for 40 minutes. We are not going to pull away from most teams.

"Last year we got better a lot of times when we went to the bench. Cliff brought us instant energy. Jules (Camara) was probably our smartest defensive player. Antwain (Barbour) and Kelenna both played well off the bench. We have some capable reserves this year, but there's no way we get better when we go to the bench like we did at times last year."

Yet, he's not ready to give up on this season

Yet Smith is not ready to give up on this season. If he was, he would not have started one of his favorite coaching ploys - 6 a.m. practices - Monday to "sharpen and hone" his teams skills.

"It's not about rewards and punishment," Smith said. "This is about refocusing, recommitting and improving."

Smith has sometimes used 6 a.m. practices to send a message to a team playing well that it can play even better. That's what he did last year. At other times, he's had to let a struggling team know now is the time to get better, which is what he did after his Cats lost 74-68 at Georgia Saturday.

"I don't know how much inspiration it will be for this group," said Smith, obviously acknowledging that his team has puzzled him with its sometimes inconsistent play and lack of physical toughness.

Apparently, the message hit home in the first two early-morning workouts.

"You never want to lose. If you do, you know the practices are going to be terrible, especially at 6 a.m.," said sophomore Ravi Moss, who had three 3-pointers against Georgia.


"It has been more physical, intense and rigorous," Moss said. "Everything is hard at 6 a.m. It's just part of the toughness factor he wants to instill in us before tournament time. He's really intent on having us ready for the tournament."

That's why that means no more Mr. Nice Guy this year. Instead, Smith has decided tough love is better for this team.

That still may not be enough to overcome the team's lack of size, depth and outside shooting, but Smith is willing to risk hurting a few feelings to make UK the team he still thinks it can be by mid-March.

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