Smith says defense better than last year

March 02, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Going into this season, Tubby Smith worried how his defense would fare without a dominant inside presence.

His past Kentucky teams had centers like Nazr Mohammed, Jamaal Magloire, Marquis Estill and Jules Camara to block, or alter, shots. The Kentucky coach knew his two true centers - freshmen Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut - likely would not be major contributors this season and that he would have to go with undersized Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes at center and power forward, respectively.

Yet going into the final week of regular-season play, Kentucky is ranked No. 9 and has clinched the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title. Smith says one big reason for UK's 21-4 record is its defense.

"Our one-on-one defense has got to improve some, but I would say our defense is a little ahead of last year," said Smith.


Last year, Kentucky ripped off 26 straight wins and earned the nickname "Suffo-Cats" because of a dominating defense that got UK within one game of the Final Four.

"Our half-court defense is better this year than our full-court defense was last year," Smith said. "We've really stepped up our defense, but I expected that from our veteran players."

Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in scoring defense in all games at 62.4 points per game and conference games at 63.2 points. The Cats are 15-0 when holding an opponent under 64 points and they are 20-1 when they score over 60 points.

In conference play, Kentucky is No. 1 in field goal percentage defense at 39.8 percent, even though it ranks only seventh in the league in blocked shots. No opponent has shot 50 percent from the field against UK this season.

"We do it more with our quickness and positioning," Smith said. "We don't have that eraser in the middle. We just have to make do with what we have, and our quickness can cause problems.

"We don't extend our defense as much this year as we did last year. We were a much better full-court defensive team last year."

Opposing coaches praise Cats

South Carolina coach Dave Odom certainly respects what UK does defensively.

"Their defense is so team-oriented and each one covers for the other so well," Odom said. "It's not a defense that is what I would call risky. They are not given to making errors. They make you beat them. They give you one shot, make it a bad one and rebound the heck out of the basketball. They take advantage of any mistake you make.

"You talk about balance on offense, but this is a team that is balanced on defense. They are able to trade you off and are very comfortable in covering for each other. They play mainly man-to-man defense, but their zone is equally effective, and they can go full-court and press. They have all the ingredients."

Florida coach Billy Donovan says it is UK's versatility that makes it so good defensively.

"Their defense is very interchangeable. You have a guy like (Cliff) Hawkins who can guard three or four positions. A guy like Chuck can guard from point guard to center. They help each other so well. If they get hung up on screens and have to switch, they don't get exposed because they have so many players that can play different positions. It's really a tribute to Tubby."

Smith admitted some of this year's statistics might be misleading when compared to last year.

"Last year, we got some big leads and backed off people, which allowed them to come back some," Smith said. "This year games have been so tight that we have not done that."

Despite their lack of overall size, the Wildcats are also second in the SEC in rebounding margin at plus 3.4 per game. Hayes is fourth in the SEC in blocked shots (1.6 per game) and rebounding (7.5).

Smith says point guard Cliff Hawkins is the "best on-ball defender" he has ever coached and should never get beat off the dribble. He's fifth in the SEC in steals with two per game.

The Wildcats' defense also has received a boost lately from sophomore Kelenna Azubuike. He's improved so much that Smith gave him the starting assignments against Alabama's Kennedy Winston and Tennessee's Scooter McFadgon, two of the conference's top scorers.

"I think I have improved defensively," Azubuike said. "I still have a lot to work on. Our team can get better, too. I just try to work hard and make sure I am not lost a lot like I was last year, or even earlier this year.

"If you play good defense, it can carry over to your offense. You get out on the break more and get steals. It definitely helps my offense, too, when I am playing defense the way coach Smith wants."

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