Vaught's Views: Lofty expectations change Smith's approach

October 22, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - The expectations may still be the same, but Kentucky coach Tubby Smith is changing his approach to the ultimate prize.

Instead of openly talking about winning a national championship, Smith took a different approach at UK's Media Day Thursday.

"I think our goal will be just getting to the Final Four," said Smith. "In the past, the goal has been to win it all. Now let's just get there and concentrate on winning one game at a time."

While Big Blue fans always expect a national championship, Smith's approach is more realistic after what has happened in recent years. Smith's first UK team won the national title in 1998. Since then, UK has not played in the Final Four.

The last two years the Wildcats were the top seed going into the NCAA Tournament. They were upset by Marquette in the regional final in 2003 and lost to Alabama-Birmingham in the second round last season.


Is a Final Four possible?

But is a Final Four possible for a team that most likely will depend on four freshmen for key contributions at tournament time?

"All things are possible. Ask the Red Sox," Smith said referring to Boston's dramatic comeback from a 3-0 deficit to beat New York and reach the World Series.

Then Smith brought himself back to reality by remembering that his team would be without Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels, Cliff Hawkins and Antwain Barbour.

"We lost more veteran players, scoring and rebounding that anybody we'll play all year," Smith said. "That in itself brings about a lot of anxiety."

Actually, Smith could have as many anxious moments this season as he does exciting ones.

Kentucky's infusion of backcourt talent should make it easier for the Cats to play a faster pace. But that could also come with a price Smith might not be willing to tolerate from freshmen guards Rajon Rondo, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford.

"I just can't stand turnovers. We want to push the ball up the court. That would play to our strengths as far as our backcourt is concerned. But we've got to be able to rebound in order to run," Smith said.

The center spot

Need more anxious excitement? Go to the center spot.

Freshman Randolph Morris is one of the nation's most coveted recruits. Seven-foot sophomores Lukasz Orbit and Shagari Alleyne could benefit from last year's limited experience.

"We are really counting on Lukasz for a big year. He's capable. He's a seven-footer who can run and has excellent hands," Smith said.

What about Alleyne?

"Shagari has great days and days I don't know what you call them. He's one of those guys who could dominate and control inside because of his size," Smith said.

And Morris?

"I think he can be a great rebounder," Smith said. "He needs to work on his offense. As far as running, jumping and competing, he's very good."

Yet Smith bemoaned the mystery surgery that has sidelined sophomore Sheray Thomas and left his playing status in doubt, and noted that preseason all-Southeastern Conference forward Chuck Hayes might have to play center, too.


Shooting. Remember the games the last two years where opponents dared UK to shoot from outside?

Smith says his team has been shooting more in practice than ever before. Rondo says he stays after practice to make 300 jump shots each day. Crawford went 5-for-5 from 3-point range in a recent scrimmage.

Then there is Patrick Sparks, the transfer from Western Kentucky. He will be a scoring point guard who shoots so well that he could also play two guard some. Smith feels Rondo and Bradley have the same type versatility.

"He's as good a shooter as we have on the team," Crawford said of Sparks. "He can really hit his shot. If you kick it out to him and he's open, he's going to make the shot."

Finally, the most anxious moments from Smith could be caused by his team's versatility. Having so many players capable of playing could wear down opponents, give Smith extra flexibility or cause some players to grumble about a lack of playing time.

Who's starting?

Smith made it clear Hayes, junior Kelenna Azubuike and Sparks should all start. After that, it's anybody's guess. Or so it seems.

"Some guys who don't have the credentials of the freshmen still have talent," Smith said. "Every player better be ready. We are going to play the best players and put the best team out there."

Just to emphasize his point, Smith noted that even walk-on Ravi Moss had a "chance" to be a starter. While that won't happen unless Smith wants to teach one of his highly-recruited players a lesson about work ethic, just planting the seed that it could happen shows Smith wants no complacency.

"Each player knows they will determine their own playing time. If you play well and grade out well, then you'll get a lot of playing time," Smith said.

And a chance to help UK reach Smith's stated goal of reaching the Final Four.

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