Vaught's Views: Bilas liked UK's chances early, and he likes them now

March 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Long before most other college basketball analysts were on the University of Kentucky bandwagon, Jay Bilas was touting the Wildcats as one of the nation's best teams.

He liked Kentucky going into the season, liked the way UK played against non-conference opponents and liked the efficiency he saw from the Wildcats during Southeastern Conference play.

Unlike many other so-called hoops experts, Bilas never worried about Kentucky's depth. He felt coach Tubby Smith would eventually develop an adequate bench and if he didn't that UK's top six players were still good enough to make the Cats special.

"I just think sometimes people worry too much about depth and forget about the players who are playing," said Bilas. "I felt from the start that UK's starters were better than they were getting credit for."


Guess what? Bilas was right and he's got a lot of company touting the Wildcats as a national title contender going into UK's opening game tonight in the NCAA Tournament against Florida A&M.

"Kentucky just had experienced returning players, especially big men that could pass. I knew having those guys inside (Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes) that could pass was a much bigger advantage than some people realized," Bilas said via telephone during a break from his ESPN duties Thursday. "The team is very well drilled and defensive oriented, and I felt that this team would be very good because of its ability to share the ball and guard people.

"Kentucky rarely takes a play off defensively. Tubby Smith's teams guard people, and that is difficult to do over the course of 40 minutes every game. I really admire how the Wildcats get after it on the defensive end every game."

Tubby Smith swept the national coach of the year honors last season when his team went 32-4 and lost in the regional final after leading scorer Keith Bogans hurt his ankle. Bilas calls Smith one of the game's "elite" coaches and says he's done a "magnificent" job again this season.

He says Cats were rewarded for being overall No. 1 seed

Bilas wouldn't predict individual game matchups in the tourney. However, he acknowledges that Kentucky was rewarded nicely for being the tournament's overall No. 1 seed.

"Kentucky has a good draw, as it should have. Being the No. 1 overall seed, you should have the more favorable draw," Bilas said.

But don't order the national championship memorabilia yet. As much as Bilas likes Smith's team, he has a warning.

"Once Kentucky gets to the Sweet Sixteen, it is in the same boat as any other team. If you do not play at the highest level, you can get beat," Bilas said. "Last year, the Wildcats were playing the best basketball of any team in the country but when Keith Bogans got hurt and (Marquette's) Dwyane Wade put on an incredible show, Kentucky's season ended.

"By any objective measure, Kentucky had a remarkable season last year and came as close as any team to reaching its true potential. This year's team certainly had to have learned the lessons taught by last year's team about unselfish play leading to greater rewards. But in the tournament, anything can happen in one game."

So what could keep UK from winning the national title, or even making the Final Four?

"Kentucky does not score with great ease, but since the Wildcats guard so well, they can still win and survive a night on which they do not shoot the ball well," Bilas said. "At times, Kentucky goes loose with the ball and turns it over at a high rate. But when Kentucky values the ball, runs fluid offense and shoots it well, there are not many teams that can beat the Wildcats."

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