Sunday, March 14, 1999

Recruit's death stuns UK players

Wildcats try to focus on Kansas game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — It's an odd question to ask a team just before a single-elimination game, a game that pits two of the three winningest programs in history for the first time in postseason play:

        Does basketball still feel important?

        To answer, Kentucky's Scott Padgett started with a sigh.

UK (3) vs. KANSAS (6)
  • When: 5 p.m.
  • Where: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans.
  • Records: UK 26-8 (11-5 SEC), Kansas 23-9 (11-5 Big 12).
  • TV: Channel 12.
  • Radio: WKRC-AM (1530), WNKR-FM (106.5).
  • 45: Points scored by Kansas in its loss to Kentucky on Dec. 1, the lowest point total for the Jayhawks since 1982.
  • 148: Games played by Wayne Turner; he'll set NCAA record for career games played today.
  • 6-0, 3-2: Records by SEC and Big 12 teams, respectively, in the first round of this year's NCAA Tournament.
        “Getting back out on the court might be the best thing for us,” he said. “If we're focused on stopping Kansas, maybe we won't be so consumed with our thoughts.”

        Saturday, those thoughts stuck solely on John Stewart, the UK recruit who died Friday night of a heart attack suffered in an Indiana high school regional tournament game. UK's locker room remained haunted by hushed tones and heavy hearts.

        When the third-seeded Wildcats (26-8) meet No.6-seeded Kansas (23-9) at 5 p.m. in the Superdome, their season will swing to the brink. Either they go quietly, victimized by their own emotions, or they take a stand and find fifth gear on their championship chase.

        Figure on the latter.

        “In the end, it might help the kids focus,” UK coach Tubby Smith said. “Maybe they'll play with a little more urgency. They'll realize how blessed they are for the opportunities they have.”

        Is basketball important?

        “It's always important because it's our livelihood. I've always been able to keep it in perspective. Whether the game goes on or not, life goes on. But in some way, playing may help us heal.”

        Smith said he would attend Stewart's funeral this week and might bring along his team. Padgett said the Wildcats will add an element to their jerseys — perhaps a patch — to reflect their remembrance of Stewart.

        Expect the veterans to guide the younger players through their grief, since they helped then-senior Allen Edwards through the death of his mother during the postseason last year.

        “The guys saw the sadness Allen had for his mom, how close they were, and they were able to rally around him to make him feel better,” Smith said.

        They gave Edwards the ultimate gift: an NCAA title. No one was promising the same Saturday, but every Wildcat said they were dedicating the remainder of this season to Stewart.

        Smith's son, Saul, a sophomore guard, even invoked the motto of former UK coach Rick Pitino, saying, “Tomorrow is never promised, so we have to do what we can in the precious present.”

  • Start strong. UK raced to a 41-22 halftime lead in the earlier meeting this season, and a similar fast start should demoralize the Jayhawks. UK started slowly and was tied at halftime against New Mexico State. They could be costly against Kansas.
  • Work for open shots. Kansas' .388 defensive field-goal percentage ranks 15th nationally, nearly as good as UK's .378 defensive percentage, which ranks fifth. Kansas has the interior height to match up with the Wildcats.
  • Get at least 10 minutes for 10 different players. If UK has an advantage, it's in depth, so wear the Jayhawks down.
        The present is suddenly scary. Kansas, the third-winningest program in history (UK is No.1), has persevered through growing pains to become one of the nation's hottest teams in recent weeks.

        After falling from the Top 25 last month for the first time in eight seasons, the Jayhawks have won seven of their last eight games and reached a season-ending rank of 22nd.

        The eight-ranked Wildcats beat Kansas 63-45 on Dec. 1 in the Great Eight in Chicago, holding the Jayhawks to their lowest point total since 1982, but Kansas was then a young team stung by injuries.

        “We're almost a year older now, and a lot healthier,” sophomore center Eric Chenowith said. “We've watched our young guys mature. We have a lot more confidence now.”

        Kansas will welcome an underdog role. This is the first NCAA Tournament game in which it entered as the lower seed in five years. It played an underdog role in 1991 all the way to the NCAA finals.

        “I'm going to tell my players that every (media) guy said, "You have no chance and shouldn't even show up,'” Kansas coach Roy Williams said. “We'll try everything we can motivationally.”

        Chenowith leads Kansas in scoring (13.5 avg.) and rebounding (9.1), and senior guard Ryan Robertson averages 12.3 points. Freshman point guard Jeff Boschee (10.7 ppg) gets the matchup against UK veteran Wayne Turner, who will set an NCAA record today for most career games played with 149.

        “We've forgotten that earlier game,” center Jamaal Magloire said. “They're such a better team now. No way are we going to write them off.”

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