Vaught's Views: Azubuike could be UK's key

November 10, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Since his arrival at Kentucky, it has not been unusual for Kelenna Azubuike to find his way to Memorial Coliseum at night to work on his shooting.

Most days he'll even stay after practice to work on his shot, a work ethic that probably explains why he was the top high school scorer in Oklahoma for two years.

Now Azubuike could hold the key to Kentucky's success this year. Not senior Chuck Hayes, a potential All-American candidate and everyone's choice as the heart and soul of the team. Not the talented freshman foursome of Randolph Morris, Rajon Rondo, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford.

Instead, Azubuike could turn out to be the key because of his scoring potential. He was 11-for-14 from the field in Kentucky's first exhibition win when he was the only Wildcat to make a 3-point shot. Against Kentucky Wesleyan Tuesday in UK's final exhibition game, he scored 15 points and went 6-for-10 from the field in the 79-54 victory here.


"I just want to help everybody out in any way that I can," said Azubuike, who was 6-for-9 from 3-point range in the two games. "That's how I see myself. Whenever someone needs to know what to do, I am there. When the team needs someone to take a shot, I am there. Whatever the case, you try to be a leader whenever you can."

Coach Tubby Smith says his team never has a "go-to guy" designated to get more than his share of shots. Instead, Smith prefers a "go-to play" that produces a good shot. However, even the Kentucky coach has said he plans to find a way to get more scoring opportunities for Azubuike this year.

"Of course that sits well with me," Azubuike said. "I am not going to turn down plays. I feel confident I can score and hopefully everybody else does, too."

They should and do.

His teammates rave about his offensive potential. He can score a variety of ways both inside and outside. He proved in the first exhibition game that his summer work had paid off when he dribbled left, stopped and hit a 15-foot jump shot. That's a move he never would have attempted his first two years at Kentucky.

"I worked on my jump shot pretty hard over the summer," Azubuike said. "I feel confident when I shoot. I am trying to be more aggressive. I still have to sharpen up some rough edges, but if I do, hopefully good things will happen."

No matter what happens on or off the court, his demeanor seldom changes. It didn't impact him last year when Smith said he "looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane" when the coach was upset with his lack of physical play.

He's dealt with his father not only having a heart transplant, but also having to deal with legal problems in Oklahoma. This week Smith said no one at Kentucky would have any comment on anything to do with Azubuike's father to try and put the issue to rest during basketball season.

That's fine because there's plenty of basketball for Azubuike to talk about already. In fact, if he plays the way many think he will, he might be shutting off questions in February about whether or not he'll consider a jump to the NBA rather than staying at Kentucky for his final season.

But that's later. Today his focus is on not only making himself the best player he can be, but also helping the team. That's why he dove on the floor early to gain possession of a loose ball that led to a Kentucky score. On the next series, Hayes did the same thing with the same result.

"I hope the young guys did notice that because that's what it takes to win," Azubuike said. "We both have to be leaders. We will all get better in that area, but I don't think there's any better way to lead than by showing people what you should be doing."

He's sincere when he says he did not feel overlooked going into the season.

"I don't care who is talking about who. I will just go out and try to play hard. That's the way we do it at Kentucky. We don't have a star system here," he said.

True, but Smith's system develops players who value winning and eventually turn into college basketball stars . Now it seems that it is Azubuike's turn to rise to that next level, going from a good player to a special player.

"I feel a little different this year, but I'm happy about that. I want to step up and show leadership and also handle more of the scoring load," Azubuike said. "But I also have to do more on defense and help the team more in general.

That all-around play is always needed. But there's nothing better for a championship team than a proven scorer. Azubuike looks like he could be that proven scorer for Kentucky and that's why by the time March Madness begins, he could be the biggest key to whatever success UK has this year.

Central Kentucky News Articles