RESULTS| STATS| HISTORY | MESSAGE BOARD | KENTUCKY INSIDER
RECORD: - REGION: Midwest SEED: 1|
COACH: Tubby Smith CONFERENCE: SEC
Road to the Final Four ...................................................................................
The Wildcats' defense will drive this team to a potential Final Four. If Kentucky can continue to lock down teams the way it did in the SEC, the Wildcats will make a return trip to New Orleans after visiting the Big Easy for the SEC tourney. Kentucky's offensive balance is also a plus. The Wildcats don't need one player to play well (see: Texas) to get into the Final Four. The Wildcats have enough depth that they can get through a poor shooting game from Keith Bogans, or an off night from Gerald Fitch. Kentucky's size inside with Marquis Estill and Jules Camara will cause plenty of problems for opponents who lack the size to keep these two away from the ball. And, don't forget about Tubby Smith. He's already got one national championship and he's hungry for a second.
|Player to Watch|
Two years after declaring for NBA draft, the senior is part of something special in the Bluegrass State's hoop history.
How They Got Here
The Wildcats arrived at their rarified position of tournament co-favorite via the visitor's locker room at Vanderbilt. That's where the season morphed from mediocre to magnificent. Down 14 at one point in the first half to the Commodores, Kentucky regrouped at intermission and unleashed a defensive tsunami that led to a 46-16 second half and a run that has never abated.
The result was a 16-0 Southeastern Conference season, three more wins en route to the SEC tournament title, and an average winning margin in those games of nearly 20 points. The apex was probably Feb. 4, when Kentucky smashed No. 1 Florida, but it never tailed off much from there.
For his work turning last year's turmoil-ridden underachievers into this year's surprise national championship contenders, Tubby Smith has become the leading candidate for national Coach of the Year awards. (He got ESPN.com's nod for top coaching honors.)
Smith has coaxed maximum defensive effort and offensive cohesion from a rotation that doesn't feature a single sure-fire NBA player. The eight or nine potential pros on the roster all look more likely for Sioux Falls or Sweden than Sacramento.
But you can go a long way with these guys.
Keith Bogans has rebounded from a disastrous junior season with an SEC Player of the Year effort as a senior. The upgrade in his mental game has been tremendous. Gerald Fitch went from thrice-suspended last year to a dependable double-digit scorer and tenacious defender. Aside from Chris Massie and Nick Collison, Marquis Estill is as legitimate a low-post offensive threat as there is in the tournament. Forwards Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels grab rebounds, pass crisply and defend relentlessly every night out. And Cliff Hawkins and Jules Camara are major weapons off the bench.
What We Like
Just about everything. Other than Arizona, no team in the Dance has tinier chinks in its armor.
A slow, grinding, half-court game doesn't hurt the Wildcats. Neither do the dangers of shooting in a dome. Kentucky's defense is its trump card, the thing that will keep it in every game even if it throws in a sub-40 percent shooting clinker. Add in a powerful frontline that is capable of dominating the backboard and it will take a truly inspired effort by a quality opponent to eliminate this team.
One more bit of bad news for the underdogs in UK's path: Don't expect to be spotted an early lead and given the opportunity to build confidence. Kentucky led at halftime 21 times in its 23-game winning streak heading into the NCAAs -- usually by a wide margin.
What We Don't Like
This is like finding faults with uber-Cat fan Ashley Judd, but here goes: The Southeastern Conference hasn't lived up to the early hype, so you wonder how strenuously this team has been tested. The pre-conference results -- including losses to disappointing Michigan State at home and Virginia on a neutral court, plus an 18-point crunching from Louisville -- aren't dazzling. Kentucky hasn't spent any appreciable time playing from behind in months; how would it react to a semi-significant deficit? Tubby Smith is working with an eight-man rotation that usually shrinks to seven at crunch time, so depth and injuries could be a concern.