Vaught's Views: A how-to guide for Kentucky to get back to Final Four

April 05, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Now that tonight's national championship finalists have been determined, Kentucky fans can only ponder what it will take for the Wildcats to get back to a national title game.

The Wildcats had an incredible run from 1996-98, when they played in three straight championship games and won two. However, UK has not been to the Final Four since coach Tubby Smith won the national title in his first season in 1998.

So what will it take for Kentucky to get back to the Final Four? Here are some possible solutions:

1. The Cats have to get more perimeter playmakers. Georgia Tech and Connecticut, who play for the national title tonight, both have players who can beat defenders consistently off the dribble and also hit the 3-point shot. They have players who can create their own shots or open shots for teammates, no matter what the opponent is doing. Duke and Oklahoma State, the other two teams in this year's Final Four, had the same type of playmakers.


2. Kentucky has to develop a deeper bench. Georgia Tech is in the final game even though its leading scorer, B.J. Elder, hurt his ankle early in the third game and has not been a factor since. He scored two points on 1-for-4 shooting Saturday, but the Yellow Jackets still beat Oklahoma State.

Smith has to develop a deeper bench and then not be afraid to use those players in crucial times in March. Smith has to trust his recruiting and be willing to go more than six or seven deep in key games.

3. As terrific as Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes were last season, the Cats have to find an inside player who can consistently score and, perhaps more importantly, stop opposing teams from getting easy inside shots.

Georgia Tech 7-footer Luke Schenscher had 19 points and 12 rebounds Saturday. Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, the nation's best center, played less than four minutes the first half Saturday because of foul trouble and didn't score. In the second half he had 18 points and dominated the game.

Kentucky must find an inside presence to be a legitimate Final Four contender.

4. A vocal leader has to emerge. Kentucky had one during the 2002-03 season in Keith Bogans, but when he went down with an ankle injury, the Cats were finished against Marquette in the regional final.

This season UK lacked a vocal leader, a player who could back up his leadership with game-winning plays on the court and exemplary behavior off the court. Hayes should be that player next season.

5. Kentucky has to find more shooters. Open shots are hard to come by in key NCAA Tournament games. Kentucky needs players who can make shots from the perimeter, a weakness this team has had since 1998.

6. Finally, Kentucky needs a little luck. Georgia Tech was lucky to beat Northern Iowa in the first round this season. Connecticut needed a couple of fortunate bounces and a controversial no-call on a late possession when what looked like a UConn foul turned into a Duke turnover.

Kentucky has not had that big break in recent NCAA Tournaments. If Bogans had not gotten hurt in 2003, UK might have been in the Final Four. If Gerald Fitch had made that last shot against Alabama-Birmingham this year, UK might have been in the Final Four.

"You can always look back and wonder," Kentucky assistant coach David Hobbs said. "If we had handled the end of the game better against UAB or got a little better whistle (from the officials), who knows? But we didn't, and we lost.

"What we have to do now is make sure every player on the team gets better for next year. We have some really talented new players coming in, but we've got to have older players to show them what to do.

"All the direction can't come from the coaches. I don't care what anybody says or does, you have to get some of that direction from your upperclassmen. But we know we just have to go back to work and try to get better if we want our season to end the way we want."

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