Monday, March 08, 1999

Kentucky knows how to win in tournament


Decade's success breeds confidence

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — Kansas and Utah are out there, ready for revenge. Michigan State looms. From another region, Duke casts a shadow over the whole tournament. But Kentucky is Kentucky. And in March, the Wildcats fear no one.

        “In our minds, we feel we're the defending national champions and the tournament is going to go through us,” forward Scott Padgett said.

        “Duke's playing outstanding basketball, so it's fair to call them the tournament favorite, but we know we're going to have our say.”

        Sunday, the 14th-ranked Wildcats won their third consecutive Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 76-63 beating of Arkansas in the Georgia Dome, then found their 25-8 record had earned them a third seed in the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Region.

        They will open play Friday in New Orleans against Big West Conference tournament champion New Mexico State (23-9), a 14th seed.

        A victory would likely set up a second-round meeting Sunday with sixth-seeded Kansas (22-9), which UK beat 63-45 on Dec.1 in Chicago.

        Should UK advance to the regional in St. Louis, it can expect second-seeded Utah (27-4), which has a 22-game winning streak.

        The Wildcats knocked Utah out of the tournament in 1993, '96, '97 and '98, with that last meeting coming in the title game last March.

        This would be the first time this decade UK is a lower seed than Utah. UK has been either a No.1 or 2 seed each of the past four years.

        “You've got a reverse situation of what's happened in the past, with Utah rated higher than Kentucky,” said UK Athletic Director C.M. Newton, who doubles as the tournament's selection committee chairman. “You can't be worried about breaking up brackets to avoid that kind of a matchup.”

        Michigan State (29-4), the Midwest's top seed, could be the final hurdle to the Final Four. If UK gets there, it then likely would have to beat No.1 Duke to reach its fourth consecutive NCAA title game.

        Coach Tubby Smith was complimentary to his team's draw, releasing this statement Sunday night:

        “You hope to get the highest seed possible from a prestige standpoint, but that's it. I'm just glad to be one of the top four seeds in what looks to be a tough Midwest Region.”

        CBS analyst Billy Packer called the Midwest the toughest region. But no one's counting out UK.

        “I look for Kentucky to get out of that region and get to the Final Four,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “Those kids know how to win.”

        How well? Since 1992, UK is 50-6 (.893) in the SEC and NCAA tournaments combined. For the third consecutive year, the Wildcats didn't bother cut ting down the nets after winning the SEC Tournament.

        “Our goal is winning the NCAA Tournament,” junior center Jamaal Magloire said. “Everything else is secondary.”

        Eight days ago, UK was reeling. It had lost its eighth game of the season, as many as it had each of the past two years.

        Soul-searching seemed to help.

        “We sat down and watched film, and realized there wasn't a lot we needed to work on,” Padgett said. “It was just a matter of fine-tuning things.”

        Seniors Padgett, Wayne Turner and Heshimu Evans spoke out in team meetings. All three had a strong tournament in Atlanta.

        “They're showing the leadership,” freshman Tayshaun Prince said. “They've been picking up their games, and their communication with us on the court has been better. They're showing the way.”

       



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