Cats trying to improve before tourney

February 25, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - While insisting that Kentucky will not overlook Tennessee tonight, UK sophomore Kelenna Azubuike admitted that the No. 9 Wildcats are confident about their chances in postseason play.

"I think we can be as good as anybody. If we continue to improve, we're a tough team to beat," Azubuike said. "I think we're real confident. We just have to keep getting better."

Freshman Sheray Thomas, who has earned more playing time recently because of his physical play, said he can sense Kentucky's older players gearing up for tournament time.

"It's not so much what they say as it is the intensity level," Thomas said. "Everybody is going a little harder, a little longer. You can tell the older guys know we have a lot of things still to correct before we start tournament play."


Senior guard Gerald Fitch has not won a national championship in his three previous seasons at Kentucky. He says the older players talk about that every day.

"That's what we want, and that is our main goal," Fitch said.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith thinks his team is improving. The Wildcats (19-4, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) would record their 14th straight 20-win season by beating visiting Tennessee tonight.

The Cats lead the SEC Eastern Division and are just one game behind Mississippi State for the overall lead in the conference. Smith says he never mentions the conference race to his team.

"Sometimes guys will look at that and start feeling good about themselves," he said. "This team has a tendency not to handle prosperity well."

Smith not worried about NCAA seeding

That's why Smith also does not worry about a potential NCAA Tournament seeding. He remembers last year when UK went into the tourney ranked No. 1 and ended up having to play both Wisconsin and Marquette in Minneapolis where both teams had big crowds supporting them against UK.

"There's nothing you can do about it," Smith said when asked about the seedings. "You have no control except the game you play tomorrow, or today. That's the only thing you can control. No one helps you do anything, but you can help yourself by continuing to play well.

"I think if we play well the rest of the season, we have a legitimate shot at being a No. 1 seed. We've got a good RPI, a good ranking. But it is still up to the NCAA selection committee. That's all we can do. Until someone asks me, it never crosses my mind because it really doesn't matter."

Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson would like to see his team just win a road game. The Volunteers (13-10, 5-7) are 1-7 in road games.

"They had a good start at Georgia, then they got in foul trouble," Smith said. "Those guys are going to eventually win on the road. I just hope it is not here. If we can get them playing our style and fast tempo, it will be to our advantage."

Guard Scooter McFadgon, the SEC's third-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, scored 33 against Kentucky in an overtime loss in Knoxville, but Smith said the Wildcats also need to focus defensively on point guard C.J. Watson. He leads the SEC in assists at 5.4 per game.

Watson missed practice Monday with a sprained big toe, but is expected to play.

Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins has pleased Smith so much with his recent play that the coach is now giving him more opportunities to call plays during a games.

"He's the leader," forward Chuck Hayes said. "He's the floor leader and vocal leader on the team. Whatever he says, we listen to. Wherever he goes, we go. When he's calling plays, he realizes who's hot. He's running the team like he's supposed to."

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