Saturday, March 11, 2000

UK loss was as ugly as it gets




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — Hello, Delta? I need to change a reservation. I need to get out of town a little earlier than I had planned. I need to distance myself from these Kentucky Wildcats before their aroma starts to cling to my clothes.

        You've heard of Arkansas and its Forty Minutes of Hell? Tubby Smith gave us Forty Minutes of Smell Friday night. The 'Cats stunk up the Georgia Dome like limburger-laced sweatsocks.

        Arkansas prevailed, 86-72, but it was 30-12 before a lot of us had settled into our seats, and the rest of the game was garbage time. The Razorbacks ran Big Blue ragged, picked its pockets and then taunted UK with perimeter marksmanship. The last time the 'Cats lost their first game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament was in 1989. The last time they were blown out like this was, well, beats me.

        “The first possession we turned it over,” Smith said. “After that, it seemed like it snowballed. After we got behind, we were trying to force things and that created more turnovers.”

Tradition, not talent
        This is what happens when your tradition outstrips your talent, when you finish second in too many recruiting battles, when the coach's son plays point guard by process of elimination.

        Tayshaun Prince is a keeper. The sophomore forward will be fine once he fills out and stops getting pushed around beneath the backboards. Keith Bogans, the freshman guard, gets better by the game. Jamaal Magloire, the center, has a mean streak wide enough to land a cargo plane. But the overall talent on this team is well below UK standards.

        The coach's son, Saul Smith, is no better than adequate. He fouled out Friday with five points, three assists and seven turnovers. His backup, J.P. Blevins, played 25 minutes and produced one point. If Smith played for Bob Huggins, he'd be lucky to get out of his warmup suit. If Blevins was with the Bearcats, he'd be the guy picking up towels.

        Perhaps we are being a trifle harsh. Only a week ago, after all, UK forced us to reevaluate its season. The Florida Gators came in Lexington with the chance to claim an outright SEC title, and the 'Cats beat them like rented crocodiles. This created a four-way tie for the league championship and a nice little windfall for the trophy maker.

Couldn't shoot, etc.
        Shortly after the 'Cats were presented with their hardware, however, their screws started to come loose Friday night. They couldn't shoot (6-for-24 in the first half), they couldn't protect the ball (27 turnovers) and they couldn't help but wonder how the Razorbacks kept dunking in their bewildered faces.

        “I don't think we lost our confidence at all,” Magloire said. “It's just one of those games. The best teams will have games like this.”

        Stuff happens. When the Razorbacks are on the run, and reasonably under control, they can make average teams appear to be mired in cement. When the Hogs play as they did Friday, it's easy to forget that they are just 16-14 for the season.

        “We just got beat by a team that was a lot quicker than us tonight,” Smith said. “We were a step slow ... It looked like we were rusty ... From the beginning, it looked like we weren't ready to play.”

        It was just one game, and a pretty meaningless game at that. Conference tournaments are really important only to those teams in need of a fast finish to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. No. 18 UK was one of three ranked SEC teams to fall Friday, joining No. 8 Tennessee and No. 11 Florida. All of them will still be playing next week, when final scores carry more finality.

        Yet anyone looking for a reason to believe in this Big Blue bunch has to be foraging for faith this morning. If Tubby Smith wants to salvage something from this atrocity, he should send the tape to the top names on his recruiting list, with a brief note: “We need you now.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

Arkansas 86, Kentucky 72