Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Tubby shows his Zen side




By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If we're not careful, if we don't watch him closely, there's a chance Tubby Smith could go all Zen on us.

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        Kentucky's basketball coach sounded as if he'd just left a Phil Jackson seminar Monday afternoon, prattling on about “sports in the purest form” and improvement as an end in itself. He was so detached, so serene, that you had to wonder if the Wildcats would start lining up for layups in the lotus position.

        Smith sounded like a coach who was either resigned to getting drilled by Duke or determined to prevent a December game from defining his season. Maybe both.

        “It's a good game for this time of the year,” Smith said. “But you don't win the national championship in December.”

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Tubby Smith reacts to a call Tuesday night.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        One of the more benign effects of TV on college basketball has been to provide elite teams more incentive to meet early. One of the inevitable drawbacks is that elite coaches must spend more time cushioning their fans for the possibility of disappointment.

'No better than this'
        Television means more money, more exposure, more opportunities to infiltrate a recruit's consciousness. This must be a powerful lure, too, because coaches are loath to schedule non-conference games they might lose.

        Tuesday's Jimmy V Classic doubleheader matched two teams that had never previously met — Alabama and Temple — and, in Duke and Kentucky, two powers who lately have met only in this event or in the NCAAs.

        Duke went out for the tipoff as the defending NCAA champion, the nation's No.1 team, undefeated and virtually unchallenged. UK emerged from its dressing room deeply conflicted.

        The players regarded Duke as a chance to establish a national identity. Smith talked of seeing how much his freshmen had progressed.

        “This is a great opportunity for us to show what type of team we are,” junior guard Keith Bogans said. “It can't get no better than this.”

        “If we can go out and beat them,” sophomore Gerald Fitch said, “it will show a lot of people what Kentucky's about.”

        What this Kentucky team is ultimately about may not be known until March. In Bogans and Tayshaun Prince, Smith has two exquisite pieces, but the rest of his team is a puzzle. He's still experimenting with different combinations, mixing, matching, looking for the right lineup for the long run. Consequently, he wanted to portray this game as a pop quiz rather than a final exam.

        With a constituency still steamed about UK's season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, Smith's position is exceedingly delicate. UK's tradition won't let him cower, and UK's prospects won't let him crow.

        “We can compete with anybody,” he said. “This is just another chance for us to see how much we've improved from yesterday's practice ... When you get involved in sports in the purest form, you want to see how much better you've become.”

        UK fans are not famous for their regard for “sports in the purest form.” Even in December, they are overwhelmingly results-oriented.

        Among the legends attached to UK icon Adolph Rupp was his purported reply to Grantland Rice's assertion that it was not whether you win or lose, “but how you play the game.”

        “Why,” Rupp is said to have said, “do they have a scoreboard?”

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; fax: 768-8550; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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