BY KEVIN FARIS It's just one game
Just wait. Just wait. We have been telling ourselves this for a couple of weeks now. Just wait. Just wait. There is no need to get all bent out of shape by exhibition losses. At least wait until the first REAL game before we really, really start to worry. Honestly, we almost had a lot to worry about. The 2002-2003 version of the University of Kentucky Wildcats did not look like they were going to turn a lot of heads. Sure, a lot of the dead weight from "Team Turmoil" was tossed overboard, (Buh-bye Rashard Carruth!), but All-American Tayshaun Prince also left. Point guard Cliff Hawkins was academically ineligible and the play in the two exhibition games, was, well, it was pretty pathetic. The Wildcat Faithful web site was full of people declaring this season was going to be an unmitigated disaster. The heat was on Tubby Smith, a coach who has a national title, but also three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, a UK first. There was talk about a new fast break offense, but no one had seen it during a squeaker win over AIA and a loss, the first exhibition loss since 1993, to Team Nike. Visions of the North Carolina meltdown of last year were dancing in the heads of many fans. And then, Monday night November 25, 2002 at 9:00 Eastern, this season actually began. Thank God.
This game was over in the first five minutes. UK beat Arizona St. 82-65 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. All of a sudden, the UK team played like a team. They shot the ball, and it went in the basket. They played defense and created turnovers. They played with energy and they played with aggressiveness. Antwain Barbour made his presence felt with the kind of play that makes you jump out of your seat. He could be the most energetic Wildcat since Derek Anderson. Guarding his man at the top of the key, he blocked the shot, and somehow, a half second later, was 20 feet down the floor receiving the pass for the break-away dunk. It was so unbelievable you had to watch the replay to make sure it was actually Barbour that made the block. Gerald Fitch handled the point guard duties, scoring 13 points, and for a large part of the game was the best player on the court. Senior Keith Bogans played a tremendous all-around game, 20 points (3 of 4 from the 3-point line, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists) and Bowling Green's own Josh Carrier hit two big 3s in the first half. As a team they shot 51 percent from the field, after going for a combined 39 percent during the exhibition. At some point between last Monday and this Monday, UK had figured out how to play this game.
The ESPN announcers were tripping over themselves to throw out compliments to the Cats. "Look at the teamwork!" said Bill Raftery, who lost some respect after referring to UK as KU more than once. "They look like they trust each other," said Jay Bilas, who earned every Cat fan's respect by going into the Big Blue crowd and hyping up the late 90s three-peat in the national title game. The small gym in Maui was covered with the Big Blue Mist that rolls into every city the Cats visit. The fans were so loud, they may as well have counted this as a home game.
The only thing that looked better than the UK offense was the UK defense. The exhibition season saw them give up back-to-back games over 50 percent shooting, a rarity in the Tubby Smith era. I hope officials in the SEC are ready for Antwain Barbour. There are times that he looks like he has four arms on the court. The defense was quick and aggressive. People were flying everywhere. Shots were being blocked, passes were being stolen, and drives were being denied. There was a stretch in the first half where Arizona State turned it over four straight times down the court. UK showed Arizona State the meaning of the word aggressive.
Despite all of the positive numbers that came out of Monday's game, there were some negatives as well. UK turned the ball over 17 times and shot 15 for 26 from the free throw line. Rebounding is going to have to be a team effort for the Cats to be successful and a good defensive team could really bother us with Fitch at the point.
It's important not get too low after the exhibition losses, and it is more important not to get too high after just one victory. Arizona State is not that good of a team and the Cats have one of the toughest schedules in the country. And that does not even include the SEC. If the Wildcats are the fifth best team in the SEC, which is where they were voted in the pre-season, then the SEC is going to be really, really good. Despite all of this, UK players, Coach Smith, and the fans have every reason to feel a little better after this win. The heat is not completely off Tubby, another 10-loss season is not going to go over well, but for now it has cooled down to a simmer. One thing is for certain, if UK keeps playing with the same energy and aggressiveness they showed last night, there should be a lot of victories in their future.