Vaught's Views: Barnhart says patience pays off for Smith

May 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

He's not ready to ordain Kentucky as the next national champion, but Mitch Barnhart isn't going to deny that he's excited about the recruiting class that basketball coach Tubby Smith put together.

"I think it was a great effort by that staff," said Barnhart, UK's athletics director. "They did a great job and filled a lot of needs. They got the big man at the end they wanted to get, and that was huge."

The big man was Atlanta center Randolph Morris, who chose UK over Georgia Tech and the NBA. Put Morris with talented guards Joe Crawford, Rajon Rondo and Ramel Bradley and Smith went from a coach having his recruiting skills questioned to a coach with the nation's No. 1-rated recruiting class.

Three of the recruits - Morris, Rondo and Crawford - are all McDonald's All-Americans. And all waited until the spring signing period to pick the Cats.


Barnhart, and probably Smith, too, hope now that Big Blue fans will understand the value of patience in recruiting.

"I think people sometimes get a little impatient in the recruiting process," Barnhart said. "Tubby, if anything, is consistent and patient. He waited and found the right mix for this recruiting class, and it is going to work out great."

How great?

"I am excited for what the future holds. They will be freshmen coming in, but when wrapped around what we have coming back, it really does look great," Barnhart said.

The key words there could be "wrapped around what we have coming back" because even as good as this recruiting class is, don't underestimate the value Smith puts on experience.

Here's the starting lineup I envision

That's why if UK were opening the season today, here's the starting lineup I would envision: Patrick Sparks, point guard; Crawford, two guard; Kelenna Azubuike, small forward; Chuck Hayes, power forward; and Morris, center.

Okay, that's two true freshmen in the starting lineup. But the anchor will be Hayes, a three-year starter and perhaps one of the Southeastern Conference's best seniors. Azubuike played as a freshman, started as a sophomore and should blossom next season.

Then there is Sparks. He's not played in a game at Kentucky, but he's a veteran. Not only did he start two years at Western Kentucky before transferring to UK, but he also spent last season practicing with the Cats and learning exactly what Smith expects from a point guard.

Smith recently said he thinks UK can run and press more because it will have more depth next season. However, he's not one that feels the Cats will be more versatile - at least not next year - because of the infusion of new talent to replace the departure of Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins and Antwain Barbour.

"I think we have always had a versatile team," Smith said. "No, I don't think we will be more versatile next year. Maybe eventually we will be in the future, but not next year because we just don't have the experience to be versatile. Versatility comes with experience and knowledge of the game. We had that this year."

December schedule is brutal

Smith does worry that another brutal December schedule could hinder the development of his young players. Pressure-packed, national TV games against foes like North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville make it difficult for Smith to tolerate learning mistakes.

"I don't go into any game expecting mistakes," Smith said. "I feel like we have always been willing to play guys and help them through their mistakes. But we also do play a competitive schedule early."

Not only does he add the freshmen, but sophomores Sheray Thomas, Lukasz Obrzut and Bobby Perry could all be dramatically better. Thomas came on at the end of last year and will benefit from a summer with the Canadian Junior National Team. Obrzut should benefit from a year in UK's system - and Morris' arrival. Perry just needs a chance to play more.

"I am not going to get into discussing where a guy might play," Smith said recently. "I am not going to keep speculating. I know you all (the media) do a great job of that. If I did this for you all, you wouldn't have anything to talk about. Come on. Give yourself a chance. You want to keep your jobs, don't you? I am going to leave something out there for you guys to talk about. I can't answer everything."

He could answer, but he won't. At least not yet and perhaps that's a good thing because it will make months of speculating about just what Smith will do with this talented recruiting class even more intriguing.

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