Monday, March 12, 2001

Kentucky went from 3-5 to No. 2 seed

AP Sports Writer

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Tubby Smith preached patience when his young squad opened the season 3-5 and dropped out of the national rankings.

        He urged his players and fans not to panic when the team lost back-to-back Southeastern Conference road games in late January.

        That tenacity paid dividends as Kentucky, which tied Florida for the SEC regular-season championship, had plenty to celebrate on Sunday.

        The 15th-ranked Wildcats (22-9) beat No. 14 Mississippi 77-55 to claim their 23rd SEC tournament title. Several hours later, they found out they had earned the East Regional's No. 2 seed for the NCAA tournament.

        Kentucky will take on 15th-seeded Holy Cross in its tournament opener at Uniondale, N.Y., on Thursday. Should the Wildcats win that game, they would take on the Iowa-Creighton winner on Saturday.

        The Crusaders (22-7) beat Navy 68-64 in overtime to win the Patriot League tournament championship and earn an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, their first appearance since 1993. This year's team completed the most dramatic one-year turnaround in school history after going 10-18 last season.

        Holy Cross is coached by Ralph Willard, who served as an assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky and with the New York Knicks. His first head coaching job was at Western Kentucky, where he guided the Hilltoppers to an 81-42 record and three postseason tournaments from 1991-94.

        The East's No.1 seed is Duke, one of Kentucky's most bitter postseason rivals. Other top teams in Kentucky's half of the East Regional bracket include No. 3 seed Boston College and No. 7 seed Iowa.

        “Certainly with Duke in the bracket, along with other top quality teams, I have to think it may be the toughest bracket in the tournament,” Smith said. “And having the chance to go up against an old friend at Holy Cross, Ralph Willard, makes it even more interesting.”

        Kentucky was one of six SEC teams to make the field of 65. The others were Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. Alabama (21-10) was left out of the field even though it had a better record than the Bulldogs (16-14).

        “It was a tough blow not getting Alabama in the tournament, because they were very deserving,” Smith said. “Georgia did get in, and that's good to see because the committee stood by its claim to reward those teams who played tough schedules.”

        Few Wildcat fans could have imagined this type of finish back in December.

        Kentucky dropped its first two games to St. John's and UCLA in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. Following a blowout of overmatched Jacksonville State in Cincinnati, the Wildcats fell to unheralded Penn State 73-68 in their home opener on Nov. 25.

        Kentucky dropped out of the Top 25 but rebounded with an impressive 93-76 victory at then-No. 6 North Carolina and a home thumping of Eastern Kentucky to improve to 3-3. Consecutive setbacks at Georgia Tech and then-No. 2 Michigan State by a combined three points dropped the Wildcats to 3-5, their worst start in a dozen years.

        “A lot of people doubted us and said this team wasn't going anywhere,” junior guard J.P. Blevins said. “But we all knew it was going to take some time for all of the new guys to get to know one another and play together.”

        The strong effort against the Spartans — and a clever move by Smith — ignited a fire under the Wildcats. With 6-foot-11 Marvin Stone struggling with academic problems, Smith inserted 6-3 freshman guard Gerald Fitch into the starting lineup against rival Indiana.

        The move paid off immediately as Kentucky ripped off seven straight wins, including victories over intrastate rival Louisville, No. 25 Notre Dame and No. 4 Tennessee. Following the losses at Alabama and Mississippi, the Wildcats won their next eight games, including victories at Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

        “I was very confident in our players and in our staff that we could play up to our potential and that it was just a matter of time before we matured and became the type of team we knew we could be,” Smith said.

        Although Kentucky lost at Arkansas and Florida heading into the tournament, Smith said he thought the Wildcats were ready to make their typical March run.

        He was right again as the team cruised past South Carolina 78-65, rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Arkansas 87-78 and then blew out the Bulldogs on Sunday to claim their annual spot near the head of the NCAA table. tournament coverage

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