Worried for Nothing?
If you have been caught up in the craziness of the NFL playoffs, and the potential for girl-on-girl action during the commercial breaks, then you may not have noticed that your Kentucky Wildcats are now ranked number eight in the country. Yes, the team that lost to the University of Louisville on December 28th, the team that made people say they were not even the eighth best team in their own conference, is now number eight in the entire nation. They are 3-0 in the SEC and are headed toward a primetime showdown against the pre-season pick for conference champions, the University of Alabama. This is not a good time for the Tubby-haters.
You all know who the Tubby-haters are. They are the people that bitch and moan about everything Tubby does. "He cannot recruit. He cannot coach. He is the worst UK coach ever. He cannot control his team. Why can't we hire Billy Donovan? Could Rick Pitino come back? Please." Just this past week an 11-year-old boy told me that, while he is a UK fan, he is not a big Tubby fan. "I don't like his offense style." That is what he said. Of course, he was 4-years-old during Pitino's last year, so let's assume that he is merely repeating what he hears at home. Well, Tubby-haters, here's bad news for you. This team is good. Sorry.
Let's go to the big board. UK is ranked number two in the SEC in scoring at 79.4 points per game. Behind Georgia, but ahead of Florida and Billy Donovan, the offensive wunderkind that most Tubby-haters want to see as head coach. Florida has also hit 159 three-pointers to UK's 91, which makes the fact that UK has a higher scoring average even more impressive. They are number three in field-goal percentage and number three in team assists. This is despite the fact they have no one in the top 10 individually in assists. They are also shooting 71% from the charity stripe, which is good enough for third. Suffice to say it, but this sounds like a pretty good offensive basketball team.
The scary thing is, it is the Wildcat defense that is really not up to par. In the past, the one thing you could say about a Tubby Smith team is that they knew how to play tough defense. Defense is his reputation, but this year the Wildcats are woefully underperforming. They are ranked 11th, or second to last, in scoring defense at 69 points per game. They are ranked dead last in field-goal percentage defense at 43% and dead last at three-point percentage allowed, at 37%. The bad defense has been the Achilles' heel for this team, but it appears the Wildcats may be on the verge of turning it around. In the second half of the Vandy game, UK had 12 steals and made as many shots (14) as Vandy attempted. This past Saturday, Notre Dame leading scorer Chris Thomas was shut down for the second straight year by the best defensive point guard in the nation, Cliff Hawkins, or Clifford, as CBS analyst Clark Kellog called him. UK added eight blocked shots and forced Notre Dame into 13 turnovers on their way to an 88-73 victory over the then ninth ranked team in the country.
So, as UK heads into the meat of the conference season, how good are they? Well it appears that the removal of some talented, but not team-oriented, players has actually helped. Team Turmoil, as last year's squad was often called, is history. "It's a whole different team than last year," said senior guard Keith Bogans. Marquis Estill, Chuck Hayes, Jules Camara, and Eric Daniels have led the charge to turn this into an inside-outside offensive team, and on the defensive end have been crashing the boards and blocking shots. Leading scorer Bogans is shooting 49% from the field, thanks mainly to his driving ability and the open looks he gets from the great inside play. Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins have provided excellent play at the point guard position and have been defensive stoppers. After a non-conference rotation that featured up to 10 players, Tubby appears to have pared down the rotation. This has aided the recent defensive resurgence, which is necessary if the Wildcats have March Madness aspirations, which of course, they always do. Junior college transfer Antwain Barbour, who was hampered by a broken hand, has the best chance to earn more minutes, but the rest of the bench figures to see less and less action.
The SEC schedule does not get any easier. UK still has to play Florida and Georgia twice. They travel to Alabama Saturday night for a big primetime showdown on ESPN, and let's not forget the game they will have played Wednesday night against newly-ranked Auburn. Provided UK wins that game, they could go to Alabama with a chance to crack the top five. It will be impossible to go through the SEC undefeated, the conference is the deepest and toughest in America, but finishing with only three losses should win the overall title and put them in the position to earn a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. "Bracketology," ESPN's NCAA tournament forecast, currently has them projected to be a number two seed, but if they can move ahead of Florida, currently on a hot streak themselves, they have a great chance to take their number one seed.
At the pre-season SEC press conferences, Tubby Smith was asked what he thought about all of the SEC schools, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama, that were ranked ahead of UK. "All I know," he said, "is that every spring I get a box from the SEC and when I open it up, there is a trophy inside." If UK continues their inspired play, this spring should be no different.
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