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Kentucky will claim title with defense, balance


Wednesday, March 17, 2004
With Florida A&M's play-in victory over Lehigh on Tuesday, 64 clubs are ready to battle for the gold trophy and the right to cut down the nets in San Antonio -- and to me, one team keeps standing out...

Tubby Smith
Tubby Smith won a national title in '98, his first year as Kentucky's head coach.
The Kentucky Wildcats.

Ranked No. 4 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, Kentucky (26-4, 13-3 SEC) earned the No. 1 seed in the St. Louis region.

People have been asking me why I have such an affection for the Wildcats. If you study what they've done throughout the season -- in typical Kentucky fashion -- you'll see that coach Tubby Smith's team has played its best basketball when it counts.

The 'Cats have more victories against top 50 teams, they can win on the road and they don't rely on just one player. They have several guys who can break down opponents on any given day, and they can create unbelievable problems for their opponents.

Kentucky isn't a team that needs its superstar to come through. The Wildcats have a variety of ways to hurt you.

Defenses can't just concentrate on senior guard Gerald Fitch because his backcourt mate and fellow senior, Cliff Hawkins, can beat you with his penetration ability. Fitch can cause havoc by knocking down shots from the perimeter.

You can't key on senior forward Erik Daniels inside because junior forward Chuck Hayes can step up. They don't have great size, but as a combo in the high and low post, Daniels and Hayes are quite a tandem. They also pass so well inside, finding the open man.

Sophomore guard Kelenna Azubuike has come on strong offensively to give Tubby another weapon. There have been even more positive contributions off the bench.

Opponents know they'll be in a battle because of Kentucky's defensive intensity.
There is one constant about this club -- opponents know they'll be in a battle because of Kentucky's defensive intensity. The Wildcats will come after you like you won't believe. They play defense as a unit. Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight have said it in the past -- defense is played like offense, when five people play in harmony. The 'Cats close off driving angles, help each other and handle all the elements of good defense as a group. And then they block out and rebound effectively.

Lots of clubs have individuals who perform well. Kentucky excels as a team.

When you look at the Wildcats' region, the St. Louis bracket has a dangerous No. 2 seed, Gonzaga. But as I analyze it, I don't see anyone who will send the Wildcats to the showers.

I believe it will be deja vu, like it was in San Antonio in 1998. Kentucky will stand tall and win its second national title under Tubby (who won in '98 in his first year at Kentucky). Big Blue will be dancing with joy down by the Riverwalk and will bring the championship back to Lexington.

Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he has been an ESPN analyst ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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