Sunday, March 19, 2000

Tubby's son in over his head

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CLEVELAND — Saul Smith is the perfect son and the imperfect player.

        His character is a lasting credit to his father, but his basketball is a bottomless source of blame. He is what happens when niceness meets nepotism, when a well-meaning coach fails to see the flaws in his own family.

        He is an heirball.

        Kentucky was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon, and Tubby Smith's kid was the leading culprit. He missed five of his six shots from the field, committed six turnovers and was found wanting at both ends of the floor in the final minute of the Wildcats' 52-50 loss to Syracuse.

        He ended the season where he started it — in over his head.

        Simply stated, Saul Smith's best is not nearly good enough at the highest level of college basketball.

        He is a point guard who is a sub-standard shooter, a below-average defender, a limited penetrator and a poor protector of the ball. On a good team, he's a backup. On a great team, he's a practice player. If he is Kentucky's point guard again next season, it will be because incoming freshman Cliff Hawkins is not ready to assume the role.

Give him credit
        What Smith does best is dignity, maintaining his calm in the face of strident criticism. This is an unusual quality in a young athlete, one Smith will surely need in his last year on the Lexington campus.

        Playing basketball for Kentucky is more pressure than any college kid should shoulder. For the coach's son, it must be a ponderous burden.

        “It's difficult,” Saul Smith said Saturday. “But I wouldn't want it any other way. Me being a part of the UK program is something special to me ... I went through a lot of things this year, but I think I've become a better person for it. All the criticism kind of bounces off me.”

        He was seated on a metal folding chair in a dressing room that could have passed for a broom closet, surrounded by reporters but still able to see beyond the periphery.

        In Saul Smith's mind, Saturday's setback was part roadblock and part building block, another step in a young team's evolution. If he was inclined to brood about it, he would not do so for public consumption.

        “A lot of people in my situation wouldn't react the way I've reacted,” he said. “A lot of people would talk back and say something derogatory. That wasn't the way my parents raised me.”

        Tubby and Donna Smith have raised their sons in the public eye, and taught them to prize their privacy. When Saul Smith wants to let off steam, he does so within the sanctuary of his apartment. If he ever doubts whether he belongs in big-time basketball, he has thus far kept that uncertainty to himself.

He tries, but ...
        His recent performance, however, has not been remotely reassuring. In his three postseason games, Smith totaled 18 turnovers against only 13 assists. He was 5-for-17 from the field, 1-for-10 from three-point range, and was charged with 13 fouls while credited with only three steals.

        He was habitually a step slow and prone to egregious, unforced errors. Among Smith's six turnovers were a double dribble and an over-and-back violation. Then, with a chance to break a 50-50 tie in the final minute of play, Smith drove the lane only to be tied up by Syracuse guard Jason Hart for a crucial change of possession.

        “I tried to get in the paint,” Smith said. “I had the same situation in the first half, and I shot like a 25-footer. This time, as I tried to split the two guys, one guy got a hand on the ball and the other guy got a hand on my hand.”

Classy to the end
        Hart hurt Smith again with his quickness on the offensive end, beating him off the dribble and drawing enough of the defense with him to free Preston Shumpert for Syracuse's winning shot.

        “I have no regrets about the season,” Saul Smith said later. “We achieved a lot of our goals. There have been tough times, but there have been joyous times, too. I'm proud of my teammates, the coaching staff, proud of myself.

        “I feel very confident about our upcoming season. We have a lot of people returning. We've got a chance to be a real special team.”

        The coach's kid has faith to spare. His trouble is talent.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at

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