Thursday, March 09, 2000

UK in its element at SEC tourney


'Cats have cured their ills in Atlanta

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — In basketball, March doesn't come in like a lion. It comes in like a Wildcat.

        Kentucky served notice last Saturday it intends to reprise its annual March march, bombing Florida in the regular-season finale. The next order of business: the Southeastern Conference Tournament, which begins today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

        This event largely has been a Kentucky coronation, coach Tubby Smith picking up where his predecessors left off.

        “It seems like this month is his month,” UK freshman guard Keith Bogans said of Smith. “He knows how to turn it up.”

        Smith's March record at UK is 16-1. He'll have more history for help:

        • UK has won 22 SEC tourney titles in 38 years with a 96-15 (.865) overall mark. The next-best team, Alabama, has won just six titles.

        • UK has won seven of the last eight years, going 23-1 in the event in the 1990s.

        • UK is 13-0 in the Georgia Dome, including 9-0 in SEC tourney play.

        “The way we've been playing there, I consider it a home court,” UK sophomore swingman Tayshaun Prince said.

        The 16th-ranked Wildcats begin play with a 9:45p.m. Friday quarterfinal (Ch.9) against the winner of tonight's Arkansas-Georgia game. Like last year, UK enters 22-8 and seeded second, breathing a sigh of relief after nearly failing to secure a first-round bye for the first time in 21 years.

        But the postseason is a fresh start, one UK historically greets with the heartiest of hugs. Then-senior Scott Padgett referred last year to the Wildcats' “biological calendars” being responsible for the extra energy. “We're training April, May, June, July each year for the next March,” UK junior guard Saul Smith said. “It's all geared toward, "We want to be the best team at the right time.' Who wants to be the best team in December?”

        This season, UK surely wasn't. It was 4-4 in mid-December.

        “I've started 4-8 and (2-6) at Tulsa and had those teams played in the Missouri Valley Championship game,” Tubby Smith said. “What's helped is we played a tough schedule, getting us ready for games like Florida the other day. We're about where we expected to be.”

        This shapes up as perhaps the most balanced SEC Tournament in years. With UK, Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana State all going 12-4 in league play, it's the first time more than two teams shared the regular-season crown.

        There are few teams who haven't pulled some upsets.

        “Teams like Arkansas and Alabama have come on,” Tubby Smith said. “Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee twice. There will be some upsets.”

        UK's concern remains the same: shooting. It ranks 11th in the SEC in field-goal percentage (.422) and last in 3-point shooting (.289).

        But the Wildcats insist they fare better in domes.

        “We usually get down there (to Atlanta) and find our stroke,” Saul Smith said. “We don't think this year will be any different.”

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