Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Kentucky keys on shooting, defending threes

The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Coaches can deliver as many speeches or conduct as many drills as they want, but sometimes it takes the fear of losing to put it all in perspective for their players. That's what happened to Kentucky during last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville.

        Down by 10 at halftime to Arkansas in the semifinals, the Wildcats played like a different team in the second half to win 87-78, then romped past Mississippi in Sunday's championship game, 77-55.

        Winning the tournament earned Kentucky (22-9) a No. 2 seed in the NCAA East Region. The Wildcats will play Patriot League champion Holy Cross (22-7) at 12:20 p.m. Thursday in Uniondale, N.Y.

        One of coach Tubby Smith's biggest concerns going into the SEC tourney was something that has plagued his team all season, its inability at times to defend against the three-point shot.

        After Arkansas hit 6-of-12 three-pointers in the first half Saturday, Smith made some adjustments that helped hogtie the Razorbacks over the final 20 minutes and equally muzzle the Rebels the following day.

        “We went back to doing some things we got away from doing this season as far as really putting more pressure on the ball and not allowing people to take a good look at the basketball,” Smith said Monday. “We want to take away those looks and touches as much as we can, and I think our kids are starting to understand when we do that it's going to improve our defense.”

        Arkansas missed its first seven three-point shots of the second half and didn't make one until less than two minutes remained and Kentucky had turned the 10-point deficit into a 10-point advantage. Mississippi, which made 7-of-13 three-point shots in a regular-season victory over Kentucky, hit just 4-of-21 threes in Sunday's championship game.

        Defending the three can be critical at tournament time, when one hot team — or even one hot shooter — can send a higher-seeded team packing.

        Overcoming adversity during the regular season and in the tournament is one key to reaching the Final Four, said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators lost to Michigan State in last year's national championship game.

        “Another big key,” said Donovan, “and I go back to Wisconsin (another Final Four contestant last year), is your percentage from the three-point line. How well do you shoot it and how well do you defend it? I don't think there's a measuring stick you can put on how important it is.”

        Point guard Saul Smith said his father challenged the Cats to be smarter when they double down and be more aggressive in the perimeter against Arkansas.

        “You can't be scared to get beat off the dribble,” Saul Smith said. “You have to get out there and take away the threes. A shooter, a scorer, wants to get it where he can shoot it as soon as the catches it, and if you take that away and make him hesitate or turn his back you're going to be successful.”

        The Kentucky-Holy Cross game will match two of the best defensive teams in the country. The Crusaders lead Division I in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.9 shooting.

        Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard and Smith both were assistants on Rick Pitino's 1989-90 staff at Kentucky, then Willard moved on to Western Kentucky and took the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1993. Smith said Willard is coaching a little differently these days than he did at Western Kentucky or later at Pittsburgh.

        “His teams there liked to press and run, but his style has changed a lot with the type of players he has at Holy Cross,” Smith said Monday night on his radio show. “They're more of a halfcourt, man-to-man team. With a 7-footer (Josh Sankos) who can block shots, they've been able to hunker down and play great halfcourt defense as opposed to extending his defense the way he used to at Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky.”

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