Vaught's Views: Cats ready to prove 'em wrong again

October 28, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Tubby Smith insists he pays no attention to preseason rankings. Still, the Kentucky coach had a prediction about where his Wildcats should be ranked in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll.

"Florida will be as good as last year, or maybe better, because of the experience it returns," Smith said Wednesday during the SEC Media Days. "I think they should be the team to beat along with everybody else in the SEC."

What about Kentucky, the team with four highly-touted freshmen along with returning starters Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike? Where would he put his team?

"I would probably put Kentucky 12th," he laughed and said.

Obviously, no one is going to pick the Wildcats last in the SEC. Smith knows that, but he either was in such a good mood over his team's progress that he couldn't resist the playful suggestion or he was taking a subtle jab at the way the media has mainly underestimated his last two teams.


Hayes, a senior, remembers exactly what has been said here the previous two years when he came to Media Days.

"Two years ago it was after the Team Turmoil year and everybody said we lacked leadership and didn't pick us to win the SEC East," Hayes said. "Last year it was that we didn't have enough size. What did we do? We were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament both times.

"Now it's that we don't have enough experience because we lost four seniors and have four freshmen. What can we do? I understand you guys need something to write about, but be realistic."

Hayes, a broadcast major, was just getting started and took the opposite approach of his coach. He was pleading for first-place votes as media members gathered around him looking for words of wisdom about Kentucky's upcoming season.

"Just don't doubt us this year again," Hayes said. "Our record the last two years speaks for itself. Can we please get some votes? Last year we were picked third after having an undefeated (SEC) season the year before. Please give us credit."

Don't worry, Chuck. The Cats have to be pick to win the SEC East. So what if Florida returns a terrific trio of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee? The Gators have appeared to have more talent than UK in previous years, but the Cats have owned the series and there's no way anyone would be foolish enough to pick Florida to finish ahead of Kentucky again even if the Cats are going to be heavily depending on freshmen Randolph Morris, Rajon Rondo, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

Mississippi State probably will be the overall pick

But the Cats might not be the pick to win the overall SEC championship. That honor likely will go to Mississippi State because of the return of center Lawrence Roberts, the league's best player.

Plus, deep down Hayes knows that experience is meaningful. He noted that two recent NCAA champions, Maryland and Connecticut, had veteran teams.

"Experience goes a long way. It's really kind of hard to explain," Hayes said.

Tennessee's Scooter McFadgon doesn't think so. He still remembers Kentucky's defensive play the last two years when he felt like five players wearing blue always knew what the other players were going to do before they did it.

"No matter what you tried, Kentucky was ready for it. Those guys had played so much together that they not only knew exactly what Tubby wanted, but they knew exactly what they were all going to do," he said. "Defense wins championships. Anybody can score, but stopping someone is hard.

"Kentucky rarely has anyone score 20 points. They have four or five guys average 10 or 12 points. They hold you to 50 points and score 70 because they know what they are doing. That experience is hard to beat."

Kentucky won't have nearly as much experience this year. Hayes and Azubuike are proven players. Transfer Patrick Sparks was a two-year starter at Western Kentucky.

Smith insisted Wednesday that last season's reserves - Josh Carrier, Brandon Stockton, Ravi Moss, Shagari Alleyne, Bobby Perry and Lukasz Obrzut - were all improved. That might be true, but the freshmen will make or break this team. At least two - Morris at center and one of the guards - should start. Smith also likely will play more players with only Hayes and Azubuike averaging 30 or more minutes per game.

That means UK won't have the luxury of having nearly as many veteran players on the court as it did the last two years.

"That's a valid point, but it's also fair to say that our freshmen are really, really good," Hayes said. "People shouldn't doubt, but then I kind of hope they do. Proving everyone wrong the last two years was a lot of fun. If we are not picked to win, then we'll just go show everybody they are wrong again."

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