Thursday, March 22, 2001

Cats credit Tubby for turnaround

Stone: 'He kept us going' through bad early stretch

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the University of Kentucky beat Iowa last Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament's second round, Wildcat fans were chanting the name of UK head coach Tubby Smith. Four months ago, they were cursing it.

        Since starting the season 3-5, UK has won 21 out of 25 games as the Wildcats head into tonight's East Regional semifinal vs. Southern California at Philadelphia.

        In that span, Smith, who led Kentucky to the 1998 national championship, has gone from reviled to revered in the eyes of many UK fans.

        The transformation of sentiment is a result of UK's stunning turnaround and an example of the fickle nature of basketball fans accustomed to winning and intolerant of losing.

        “There are high expectations at” the University of Kentucky, said the coach's son, Saul Smith, the starting point guard. “We all know that coming in.

        “And there should be. This is a great program loaded with tradition. And nobody wants to win games and go to the tournament as bad as the team.”

        UK dropped back-to-back games against UCLA and St.Johns in early November at the Coaches vs. Cancer event in New York City.

        By mid-December, the team was 3-5.

        Central Kentucky sports talk radio was full of nasty comments directed at Tubby Smith. The local papers were all over him. Fans actually booed him and the team in Rupp Arena.

        “I thought it was very rude,” said UK fan Lil Kazee of Magoffin County, who traveled to Long Island, N.Y., last week to watch the team in first-round NCAA action.

        “It was an injustice,” added her husband, Ned. “He's done a phenomenal job. Just count the wins.”

        Smith and his players said several factors — mainly youth an inexperience — contributed to the team's early-season woes.

        UK has just one senior, and nine of the 14 players are freshmen or sophomores.

        “Most people did not realize that, and some people don't care to know about it,” Smith said last week. “But we ran into two veteran teams very early in the season in New York and we got off to the slow start.”

        Smith said his absence from the program through September - he was an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team - didn't help the situation.

        “That was probably a setback in getting to know the players,” he said. “It took awhile for us to meld and bond together.

        “But once we did that over Christmas break, we just took off,” Smith said.

        Sophomore guard Keith Bogans agreed.

        “We had a lot of newcomers and we just weren't accustomed to how everybody played,” Bogans said. “That really got us off track, and we couldn't pick it up as quickly as we wanted. But sooner or later, we stuck with it and things picked up for us.”

        Smith also made some key changes. He moved All-American Tayshaun Prince from power forward, playing underneath the basket, to small forward. He also inserted freshman guard Gerald Fitch into the starting lineup.

        Freshman forward Erik Daniels, a Princeton High School graduate, said Smith held the team together in those dark, early days of the season.

        “He does an excellent job keeping everybody on level ground,” Daniels said. “He kept telling us we had to come together as a team, and we had to start playing team ball. That sunk in with people.”

        But Smith is going to start hearing more comparisons to Rick Pitino, the coach he replaced at UK. Pitino on Wednesday accepted the coaching job at rival Louisville, a move that is bound to make life a little tougher for Smith given Wildcats fans' affinity for Pitino.

        Pitino, who most recently coached the Boston Celtics, won a national championship at UK in 1996 and returned the storied program to national prominence after the team came off probation in the early 1990s.

        “Criticism of Coach (Smith) is unfair,” sophomore forward Marvin Stone said. “When we were down, he kept us going by telling us we had a good team but that we had to stick together and work hard, and in the end we'd have a good season.

        “Looks to me like he was right on target with that.”

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