Gators to test Cats

March 07, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - In Tubby Smith's mind, Florida is just one of many Southeastern Conference opponents that would like to take Kentucky's spot at the top of the conference standings each year.

"What I see is a bunch of teams that would like to knock us off," the Kentucky coach said. "That's the way I look at it. Georgia gets our attention. Alabama does. Florida gets no more attention than any other team. I expect our players to prepare the same for this game as for any other."

Kentucky (22-4, 12-3 SEC) hosts Florida (18-8, 9-6) today in the traditional Senior Day game.

The No. 9 Wildcats have won five straight games over Florida, and Smith is 9-4 against the Gators and coach Billy Donovan, who was on Rick Pitino's UK staff at the same time Smith was.

"We've just played well against them, and they have not played to their level," Smith said. "It's not anything they have done different or not done. We have shot well against them. It's also always billed as a big game and our guys rise to that level."


The Wildcats won 68-65 at Florida last month by scoring the game's final 11 points. Last year the Gators came into UK ranked No. 1 and were dismantled by the Wildcats, a game UK junior Chuck Hayes still fondly remembers.

"Last year had to be the most fun game I've had here," Hayes said. "It was the most fun of any game. I still have the tape at home and look at it when I am home. I mainly just watch the first half. We were running and scoring at will."

Unlike Smith, Hayes says the Wildcats do view Florida as a more legitimate threat than some other conference teams.

"We just come ready to play against them," Smith said. "We get up a little more for Florida. I don't know why, but we do. I would not say we view them as a threat, but we do view them as a team on the rise that we want to keep below us."

That didn't seem like it would be difficult when Christian Drejer, considered Florida's best overall player by most college basketball analysts, quit the team last month to play for a professional team in Europe. However, the Gators are 4-0 without him and positioned to finish second in the SEC Eastern Division.

"We are a different team now," Donovan said. "Christian was a good player and I would not say we are a better team without him. But our focus has been better and we are playing better."

Gators using more zone defense

Smith says the Gators are using more zone defense and have added a "few new wrinkles" on offense since Drejer's departure.

"They have made the adjustments well without Drejer," Smith said. "They have bounced back and played four good games in a row.

"Most athletes will come together. They are committed together and may have been distracted before. They seem to have more focus. They have regrouped and made a strong run here at the end."

The Gators have three players - guard Anthony Roberson, guard Matt Walsh and forward David Lee - combining for 47 points per game. Lee is shooting 59 percent from the field and Roberson is fifth overall in the SEC in scoring.

Smith says the Gators are going to Walsh more now and that Lee has remained solid inside. He also says Roberson can score in a variety of ways.

"You've got to contain him because he can go by you or shoot over you," Smith said. "He's running their offense extremely well. You don't stop a player of his caliber, but Cliff (Hawkins) does a good job defen-sively. He's as good as there is.

"We just have to make sure if they are in transition, we get matched up with him. You've got to challenge his shot and al-so not let him go right by you."

Kentucky did almost everything right Wednesday at South Carolina when it routed the Gamecocks 84-65.

"Kentucky made us look bad in every phase of the game," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "Kentucky was so very, very good.

"I have not seen all of Kentucky's games, but if they have played a better game in any of their other 25 games, I would hate to be on the receiving end. They played great basketball. They had 19 turnovers, but they were so loose and felt like they could walk on water and do anything. They just played great basketball."

Smith gave his team the day off Thursday, but had the Cats back on the practice court at 6 a.m. Friday.

"We've been shooting the ball better and playing a lot better since we started the early practices," Smith said. "We've been trying to place more emphasis on free throw shooting and taking care of the basketball."

The Wildcats are hitting just 67 percent of their free throws in conference play. They were 9-for-19 at South Carolina, and Hayes was 0-for-4.

"We've all been working on our free throws," Hayes said. "It just became mental for me after I missed the first one. We know that's an area we have to get better at."

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