UK eager to finally play another game

November 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - After Kentucky lost to Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats were scheduled to have three weeks off.

That was way too long for seniors-to-be Chuck Hayes and Josh Carrier.

"Our season ended on a sour note," said Carrier. "Chuck and I talked about a week later and said we couldn't wait any longer to get started again. We had to get everybody back in the gym, and we did. We started playing pickup games and going at each other a week after we got beat. We've been waiting a long time to finally get to play another game again."

That chance comes Saturday when the No. 9 Wildcats host Coppin State. The Eagles were 18-14 last year, shared the MEAC title and return four starters. However, Kelvin Green, Coppin State's top returning scorer at 12.2 points per game won't play Saturday because he's a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion that forbids physical activity from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.


Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell, who has 304 wins at Coppin State in 18 years, also has missed time with the team after having thymus gland removed about a month ago.

A far bigger test

Still, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith says Saturday's game will be a far bigger test for his team than exhibition victories over Northern Kentucky and Kentucky Wesleyan.

"A team like Coppin State will make us play our best game," Smith said Thursday. "I know Coppin State is very capable of beating people, and beating us. We've got to be on top of our game."

Smith said playing a true Division I team means Kentucky will see better, more experienced athletes.

"They will be much bigger, taller," Smith said. "Their players are more athletic. They are also very patient on offense. They will not beat themselves. They will take care of the ball. We are not going to run them out of their stuff. They will be a real challenge for all of our players."

That includes four highly-touted freshmen - guards Rajon Rondo, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford along with center Randolph Morris. Smith has decided to put them off limits to the media for an unspecified amount of time because of all the attention their presence has generated.

"I expect underclassmen to pay their dues," Smith said. "We've been pretty competitive the last two years with the eight or 10 players we have returning. Guys like Chuck (Hayes), Kelenna (Azubuike), Josh, Lukasz (Obrzut). I expect more out of them than first-year players."

Smith hopes his freshmen will be nervous Saturday, but he expects them to also play well.

"I hope they are nervous. If you have ever played sports, you know nervousness is part of the game," Smith said. "I think they will play under control. We play a certain style. They'll play within the system. They are not going to be asked to carry the load."

Hoping schedule helps

Smith hopes a schedule that has more home games against unranked teams will make it easier for Kentucky to build chemistry and get his freshmen needed experience.

"In past years we have traveled around the country playing," Smith said. "This year we arranged our schedule in the right way to let players grow and gain confidence.

"It's important to have an early schedule that allows us to get a look at everybody. We've not diminished our schedule when you look at all the teams in the top 25 that we will play."

Carrier admits some players will miss not playing a stretch of opponents like UK did last year when it faced Michigan State, UCLA, Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina on successive Saturdays.

"We are not bored, but going to Michigan State and UCLA are fun games," Carrier said. "But it just won't happen this year. We just have to play the games we have. If we focus one game at a time, we can still get better and there's plenty of competition out there even if the schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous."

Smith does hope his team's 3-point shooting has a better look Saturday. The Wildcats were just 8-for-39 from 3-point range in the two exhibition wins.

"I would like to see us shoot better," Smith said. "We took good shots (in the exhibition games). We just didn't make them."

He wouldn't blame a lack of practice time at Rupp Arena for the shooting woes.

"The baskets are still 10 feet tall. We are going to play in different venues all year," Smith said. "We don't have as much access to Rupp Arena as we would like, but that's not going to change. But it just takes time to learn where the shots are coming from and to define roles. If we get better execution, then we'll get better shots and make more."

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