Cats roll over Arkansas in lopsided win

February 19, 2004|Larry Vaught

LEXINGTON - In what Tubby Smith called a "feel-good game" for Kentucky, no one should have felt better about his play than freshman Sheray Thomas.

No, he was not the star of Kentucky's 73-56 victory over Arkansas Wednesday night. That honor went to point guard Cliff Hawkins, who tied a career-high with 11 assists and also had a team-high five rebounds along with five points, or perhaps Erik Daniels, who had 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting.

Thomas went 3-for-3 from the field and scored six points in just over nine minutes of play. He also had one rebound.

More importantly than the numbers, he played with confidence and aggressiveness. He displayed the physical toughness that Smith has been wanting, especially from his bench players.


"Sheray is strong. He plays physical every day in practice," UK teammate Ravi Moss said. "He's as athletic as I don't know what.

"Sheray is a lot like Chuck (Hayes). In a couple of years, he could be Chuck. They are the same size, they are strong, they both move their feet and they both have a lot of athletic skills. That's why he reminds me so much of Chuck."

Thomas calls Hayes a "physical dude" who has taught him a lot of lessons in practice daily. He shies away from comparisons to any player, but he also recognized what a compliment Moss was directing his way since Hayes is generally considered UK's most physical and intense player.

"I don't want to be compared to anybody, but what can you say about being compared to Chuck Hayes," Thomas said. "That's big."

Thomas got to play as much as he did because of Hayes' early foul troubles. The junior was limited to a season-low 10 minutes and that created playing time not only for Thomas, but also for freshmen Bobby Perry (13 minutes, five points, two rebounds) and Lukasz Obrzut (eight minutes, two rebounds, one blocked shot).

"We need Chuck in there," Thomas said. "He's a real asset. We need him to be foul-free. But when it is my time to play, I try to rebound, score and just pick up the other players. I just try to play the best I can."

Thomas has not been discouraged despite his lack of playing time. He had played just seven minutes total in nine games before getting a season-high 11 minutes against Alabama Feb. 10. However, he played only one minute in Saturday's loss at Georgia, partially because he got three fouls. He got four more fouls in his nine minutes against Arkansas.

"You've got to play without fouling," Smith said. "I like his aggressiveness, but you've got to play smarter."

Smith noted his foul-rate at Georgia would have resulted in "over 100 fouls" if he played 40 minutes. "They don't allow you but five (fouls)," Smith said.

However, the coach did acknowledge that he likes the way Thomas attacks defensively and does not want to discourage that trait, especially since most of his players lack that attack mentality.

"I've got to stop fouling," Thomas said. "I've got to learn not to foul. I'm upset with myself. I hurt the team doing that. I never used to foul like that in high school. I had my games, but never like this."

Still, one senses that Smith doesn't mind Thomas using his body to knock opponents around. He's not afraid to try and take a charge. He's not afraid to push an opponent away from the basket. He may not know all the tricks to get away with fouls and he may not be as strong as he eventually will be, but he is not afraid.

Teammates like that. Hawkins has watched Thomas get more aggressive daily in practice to the point that he now challenges Hayes.

"He can bang with the best of them and take the contact without complaining," Hawkins said. "He likes to put his body on guys. I actually like those fouls. I like his aggressive play. He's not scared of anybody."

He's also not afraid to admit he doesn't know everything. He's patiently accepted his limited role without pouting. He's trusted Smith's criticism because he knows it is designed to make him better.

Thomas is more athletic than many players. He hit a 15-foot jump shot Wednesday, the first time he's scored outside the paint, but he's shown coaches in individual workouts that he has a better shooting touch than most realized.

He's also likely to get much better in the next year. He's from Canada and basketball is not emphasized there like it is here.

"Sheray is just now starting to feel comfortable," Smith said. "He has a better understanding of the system and what we want done."

And Wednesday's "feel-good game" should only add to that understanding for a freshman who is just starting to make his mark at Kentucky.

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