Conley: December games key for Cats

October 29, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

BIRMINGHAM - Three early non-conference games could determine whether Kentucky can be a national title contender in March.

College basketball analyst Larry Conley said December matchups against North Carolina and Louisville, both veteran teams, as well as a January game with Kansas will indicate just how good coach Tubby Smith's young UK team can be.

"If there is a question about Kentucky, right now it will be how they handle really tough defenses," Conley said Thursday during the Southeastern Conference Media Days here. "Tubby's system, both offensively and defensively, has a lot of little quirks. How quickly these freshmen come along will determine what kind of year they have.

"Take a look in December and see how well they play against North Carolina and Louisville. They are both veteran teams. If Kentucky plays well against both of those teams in December, watch out in March."


That's because Conley anticipates Smith making freshmen Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris and Rajon Rondo all far better players in March than they will be in December.

"The game with Kansas in January could be a key game," Conley said. "I happen to think Kansas and Illinois are the two best teams in the country going into the season. By the time they play, Tubby will have a pretty good read about what this team is going to be about.

"Even more so, Kentucky fans will have decided if this team can win a national championship. They know Kentucky has been a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) the last two years and they'll decide by then if they are that good again or not. Kentucky fans are good at evaluating how good teams are. They are very astute when it comes to basketball. By the Kansas game, they'll know if this team is good enough to be a national title contender or not."

Conley thinks Smith's freshmen bring a new energy level not only to the coach, but also to Kentucky fans.

"When players have been around two, three or four years, fans and coaches pretty much know what to expect," Conley said. "Freshmen reinvigorate everybody. What do we have? How will they blend in? How good are they?

"That lends itself to raising expectations even higher because this freshman class is so good. Could they be a bust? Sure they could. But I don't think so. This is Tubby's best recruiting class. They will blend with Kentucky's veterans and I think have a season that will really be a lot of fun for the fans and players."

No Kentucky: Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said there was no way his team should have been picked by media members here Thursday to win the SEC Western Division or finish just one vote behind Kentucky in balloting for the overall SEC champion. However, he also said there was no reason to ever compare interest in Mississippi State basketball to that in Kentucky.

"Kentucky is at a peak every day. Mississippi State is not like that when it comes to basketball," Stansbury, a Kentucky native who played basketball at Campbellsville College, said. "People wake up thinking basketball in Kentucky and fall asleep thinking about it. It's not close to that in Mississippi."

Missing: Mississippi State forward Lawrence Roberts, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, missed media days after spending Wednesday night in the hospital following a hard fall in practice.

"It got just kind of blown-up a little bit," Stansbury said. "It happened about 6 o'clock and there was about 700 students coming into that gym and Lawrence lays on the floor for about 20 minutes and came off the floor on a neck board.

"By the time we got to the hospital, I get a call and the first thing I hear was, 'Lawrence's neck was broke, he was carried off the floor and his neck was hanging off boards.'"

He said Roberts hit the floor hard on his elbow and had tingling in his fingers, prompting fears the injury might be more serious than it actually was.

Hot shooting: Tennessee freshman guard Chris Lofton has impressed coaches and teammates with his 3-point shooting. He recently made 138 of 150 3-pointers during a timed drill, the most any Tennessee player has ever made.

"We have had 11 practices so far and he's doing very well," Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. "He even approached our coaching staff and asked if he could get in some extra practice time. He has never really had a chance to focus on just basketball during the fall because he's always played football."

Tennessee guard Scooter McFadgon said the Vols are glad to have Lofton.

"It surprised me a lot that he got out of Kentucky," McFadgon said. "I guess Kentucky and Louisville didn't see the best in Chris. But the way he shoots, I'm surprised they let him out."

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