Odom: UK is most versatile team in SEC

March 03, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Dave Odom knows the knock on No. 9 Kentucky is that it cannot play physical basketball. However, the South Carolina coach thinks that is the wrong perception.

"I think Kentucky is definitely not a finesse game, but it is not a street fight, or alley fight, either. I think Kentucky is the most versatile team in our league. They can play either style (finesse or physical) and survive.

"Their most comfortable style is just whatever happens. Still, when you look at it, the basis for their games is an inside game complimented with a perimeter game. They are not a soft team as some people want to believe."

South Carolina almost beat UK (21-4, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) in Rupp Arena earlier this season before losing 65-64. UK's leading scorer, Gerald Fitch, missed that game with a hand injury but he's back and coming off a 23-point game at LSU Sunday.


The Gamecocks (21-7, 8-6 SEC) won't be at full strength. Forward Rolando Howell scored 10 points in Saturday's win over Georgia, but he fractured his wrist and will not play again this season.

"It looks to me like they are an improved team. They continue to play well on the road. As they always do, they stood tall and won the basketball game (at LSU)," Odom said. "They are also playing at full strength now and we are not. We did not play well defensively in that first game, but they still won without Fitch. It will be a difficult game for us and one we will have to play very well in to have a chance to win at the end."

South Carolina, which had lost five of seven games before beating Georgia, played without Howell early in the season. Odom hopes that experience helps.

"Our team has dealt well with adversity," Odom said. "We played without him before. We have to go back to that mentality. Perhaps we have more answers now than we had then. Our perimeter people are going to have to do a better job."

"They have a lot of people that can beat you in different ways even without Rolando," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "We know how they can shoot the ball, get on a roll and create a lot of problems."

Gamecocks also have defensive versatility

That's partially due to South Carolina's defensive versatility. Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins says the Gamecocks are much like UK.

"They have guys that can switch out and guard a lot of different people," Hawkins said. "They are so quick that they can recover and not get beat defensively. They pressure you and if you beat your man, someone else is there to help. They play a lot like us on defense."

South Carolina has held seven teams to less than 50 points this season and SEC teams are shooting only 41 percent from the field against the Gamecocks.

"They cover up for mistakes very well," Smith said. "They are all very athletic and they are all quick for their size."

Smith wouldn't say if he would put Fitch back into the starting lineup or continue to use him as the team's sixth man. Fitch had started 102 games before a hand injury forced him to miss three games. The last four games he's come off the bench.

"I don't care who starts," Smith said. "I expect him to play well whether he starts or comes off the bench. His attitude has been good and he's been helping. If not, someone else will be in the game. That's just the way I coach. We are going to win with you or without you. Gerald understands that. They all do."

A bigger concern to Smith is Erik Daniels' groin injury. Smith said it has bothered him for about two weeks and will the rest of the season much like Marquis Estill's knee did two years ago when Smith had to hold him out of practices to keep him ready for games. Daniels did not practice Monday and Smith said he likely will not practice many more times this season.

"It's going to nag him," Smith said. "One of his keys is his quickness, explosiveness and speed. It limits him a lot. It does worry me. There's not much we can do but rest it and there's not a lot of time to rest now."

That's because UK has only two more regular-season games and still hopes not only to catch Mississippi State for the overall league title, but also wants to possibly earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"This is the time of year where you want to be playing your best," Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes said. "Every game is big because it means something. We know what is at stake every game. You never want to lose, but you certainly don't want to lose at this point in the season."

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