Vaught's Views: Smith upbeat about UK's chances

March 17, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - If Tubby Smith has any major worries going into the NCAA Tournament, he's certainly hiding them well.

If anything, Smith only added to the Big Blue Madness that started Sunday when his Wildcats again won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and then were made the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Rather than try to downplay his team's chances of winning a national title, Smith embraced the championship talk by praising the way his team has been playing. Of course, what else could he do?

The Wildcats have won nine straight games. They are playing more physical basketball and their outside shooting seems to be improving weekly, one major reason that UK's scoring has been up during the win streak.


So what does it take for a team to have success in the NCAA Tournament?

* Leadership.

"You've got to have good leadership. We have that," Smith said.

* Enthusiasm.

"We are energized and enthusiastic. You've got to have camaraderie, a real cohesiveness," Smith said. "We have that. Our players like each other."

* Toughness.

"You need a tough-minded team and we are tough physically and mentally," Smith said. "We've been through the wars all over the country. We don't get down. These guys have learned how to keep a good balance. We've been able to handle all the exposure and hype."

* Defense.

"We are a good rebounding team and we play good defense. You have to play good defense to be successful in tournaments. We are fundamentally sound in every area," Smith said.

Any concerns going into the tournament? Anything that could derail the Wildcats? Or maybe just something to slow down the Big Blue Madness that has many media types and coaches across the country expressing the same national title expectations for the Cats that UK fans have?

"We are going into this on a high," Smith said. "We are going into the postseason with a high level of confidence."

Notice that Smith did not predict a national championship. Instead, he only acknowledged that his team was playing well. However, he did warn that a lot of other teams are also going into the tournament playing well even if Connecticut, Oklahoma State and several others are not getting as much national hype as the Wildcats.

He also cautioned that matchups play a big role in determining who wins a national title. He noted that his team certainly would not want to run into a team like Georgia. Or that Marquette was a horrible matchup for his team last year because the only UK player that could adequately defend Dwyane Wade was Keith Bogans and Bogans hurt his ankle the previous game.

"You just have to have a lot of things fall in place to even make the Final Four," said Smith, who insists he never looks ahead to possible tournament opponents. "There are a lot of teams out there that could win if things fall in place."

Smith also emphasized that judging a team's success solely on NCAA play is unfair. His team had won 26 straight games last year before losing to Marquette in the regional final to finish 32-4. This year the Cats are 26-4.

"If you base success just on three weeks in the tournament, you would be a basket case," Smith said. "You would never make it. You better base it on the season. You love coaching and you get to test yourself against the best in the tournament.

"The good thing about the NCAA is that there is a finale. There is no debate about the best team. But you shouldn't eliminate the regular season. I don't look at it that way. I get excited at this time of year because of what we've already done. If it ends abruptly, I know we've still reached some of our goals already."

True, but it's still obvious there is one more big goal remaining that Smith believes could be within his team's reach.

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