Thursday, November 15, 2001

WKU asked to face Cats

'Toppers want tough test

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton had only one request before agreeing to play in the season-opening NABC Classic at Rupp Arena: He wanted to take on the tournament's host team.

        “I told them we'd be there if they could guarantee we'd get to play Kentucky,” Felton said. “It's a great, exciting opportunity — a chance to measure ourselves with truly one of the most established, top teams in the country.

        “We're growing into a successful team, and this happens to be a year when they could have one of the most talented teams in their history. It's perfect timing.”

        The up-and-coming Hilltoppers, led by 7-foot-1 All-American Chris Marcus, will play their intrastate rivals for the first time since 1992, in the second game of today's opening round.

        The first game will feature Marshall — led by Paintsville, Ky., native and Mr. Basketball J.R. VanHoose — and George Washington. The winners and losers will face off Friday night.

        Many coaches would cringe at the thought of having to open their season against No.4 Kentucky in its home building. Felton, however, would play at Rupp Arena every year if it meant having the Wildcats on the schedule.

        “They haven't been interested in a series ... we've tried,” said Felton, whose squad was 24-7 last season and made the NCAA Tournament. “Tubby Smith is a good friend of mine, one of the first coaches I ever knew when I was breaking into the business.”

        “They have to do what they think is best for them, just like we have to do what we think is best for us. If they think their agenda includes avoiding a series with us, I'm disappointed but I don't have anything bad to say about it.”

        Smith, who already has called this year's Kentucky squad the most talented he has coached, said he relishes the chance to play such a formidable season-opening opponent on the heels of Sunday's sloppy 88-83 overtime victory over Athletes in Action.

        “They are a very good team,” Smith said. “Marcus is a force — an All-American coming off a great year. They'll certainly be coming into Rupp Arena to make a statement early in the season.”

        Kentucky has its own All-American in 6-9 senior forward Tayshaun Prince, the reigning Southeastern Conference player of the year, who along with junior forward Keith Bogans give the Wildcats one of college basketball's most dangerous tandems.

        “This is going to be a great, great test for us right out of the gate,” said Bogans, who led the Wildcats in scoring with an 17 points a game last year. “We didn't play as well as we wanted to in our last exhibition game, and this will give us a chance to see if we've corrected some of our mistakes against a quality opponent.”

        Marshall never has beaten Kentucky in nine previous meetings. The last time the two teams met — Dec. 19, 1995 — the Wildcats thumped Marshall 118-99 en route to the 1996 national championship.

        VanHoose, however, would love to get a shot at the Wildcats if the Thundering Herd get past George Washington today.

        VanHoose, who led Paintsville High School to four straight trips to the Sweet Sixteen and a state title in his sophomore year, grew up a huge Kentucky fan and was disappointed the Wildcats did not pursue him more aggressively.

        “Sure it hurt,” said VanHoose, who ranks 17th on the school's all-time scoring list. “But I've been able to put all that behind me and I'm really happy with the way things have turned out.”

        VanHoose was a first-team Mid-American Conference center last season and is one of only five Marshall players to have more than 1,300 points and 700 rebounds in his career. He averaged 16.6 points a game last year and led the league with 11.1 rebounds a game.
       VanHoose is not Marshall's only weapon. Senior Tamar Slay, a 6-9 guard, led the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game last season.
       “This is it. This is our last run together,” coach Greg White said. “I have very high expectations for them. I'm putting a little pressure on both of them, but I think they can handle it.”

        George Washington has averaged 97 points in winning its two exhibition games against Universal All-Stars and Team Vantaa.

        The Colonials, under first-year coach Karl Hobbs, are led by junior guard Chris Monroe and senior forward Jaason Smith, who averaged 20 and 19.5 points respectively in the team's two exhibition games.

        George Washington's only victory over the Thundering Herd came in the schools' first meeting during the 1936-37 season. Marshall has won the last five meetings.


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