Vaught's Views: Wildcats No. 1 going into NCAA play

March 15, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

It was just over a month ago that Kentucky looked like it had a good team, but not a great team.

That was after the Wildcats obviously backed down against Georgia and lost to the Bulldogs 74-68 Feb. 14 in Athens, Ga.

Kentucky was trying to cling to a top 10 national ranking with its 17-4 record. It's leading scorer, Gerald Fitch, had missed three straight games with a hand injury and no one was positive when he would return or how effective he would be the rest of the season. Kentucky's bench play also continued to be suspect.

Then there was the perceived lack of physical toughness. Georgia twice beat Kentucky by playing an aggressive, physical style that UK could not match.


The last month, though, has not only seen Kentucky improve, but during that time the Cats might have become the nation's best team. They once again dominated Florida 89-73 to win another Southeastern Conference Tournament title Sunday in Atlanta. More importantly, UK's ninth straight win emphasized just why the Cats earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Not just a No. 1 seed, but T-H-E No. 1 seed. The NCAA selection committee also gave Duke, Stanford and St. Joseph's, all ahead of UK in every poll, top seeds in the tourney but the Wildcats were picked as the nation's No. 1 team by the committee going into the tournament.

The Wildcats won't go into NCAA play Friday in Columbus against either Lehigh or Florida A&M (they play Tuesday to determine which team plays UK) with a 23-game win streak like they did last year, but they might go into the tourney with an even better chance of claiming the national title - despite not having Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill this season.

"We've had a lot of tough, close games which should help us at tournament time," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "This group is not one that will panic. They know how to hang together and make plays when you really need them.

"This has always been a group that if they think you are satisfied, then they are going to be satisfied, too. But now when there is something special ahead to help them focus even more, I think they'll turn their level of play up even more."

If they do, opponents could well be in trouble. The Cats did almost everything right while winning another SEC tourney crown. They limited their turnovers. They rebounded. As always, they played relentless defense.

Cats continue to have that one intangible that is priceless at tourney time

Kentucky also continued to have that one intangible that is priceless at tournament time. Whenever the Cats need a player to raise his level of play, he does. Erik Daniels came back from a subpar opening-round game with a big semifinal performance. Tournament MVP Gerald Fitch responded to losing his starting spot in the semifinals by scoring 24 points off the bench. Chuck Hayes had two forgettable games before contributing 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to Sunday's romp.

"I do like this team," Smith said. "During the course of a year, you have to believe that you can do better and if you don't get the ultimate prize you didn't reach your ultimate goal. For the most part, there are probably 300-plus teams that feel that way starting in October. Everyone wants to compete for championships."

Especially in Big Blue Land. Success at Kentucky is directly measured by postseason success. A great regular season can quickly be forgotten by a March collapse.

But everything seems to be falling perfectly in place for UK. Other highly-regarded teams lost in conference tournaments. Other highly-regarded teams have had players injured.

The Cats were almost being ignored as a national title contender while Smith quietly got his team's offense running more efficiently after he gave point guard Cliff Hawkins more freedom and found more productivity from his reserves.

Even the NCAA bracket is one the Cats have to like. The No. 2 seed in the St. Louis Region is Gonzaga, not Connecticut or Oklahoma State - two teams that would be much tougher matchups for UK.

Georgia Tech is a worthy No. 3 seed, but the Jackets depend on perimeter play for their success and Hawkins and Fitch can neutralize most backcourts.

The Cats could face a difficult second-round matchup against either Washington or Alabama-Birmingham, two underrated teams. However, a likely region semifinal game with Providence or Kansas is a good matchup for the Cats.

"We can win a national title. I really believe that," Kentucky senior Antwain Barbour said. "We have balanced scoring, everybody knows his role and we are all coming together better every day. We just have to make sure we keep everything in sync."

If they do, then there's no reason to think the Cats won't spend the next three weeks proving why they really did deserve the No. 1 overall seed Sunday that no one could have thought was possible for this team only a month ago.

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