Saturday, January 26, 2002

Smith to take Cats' measure in key stretch

Alabama first of 2 SEC tests for Kentucky

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — If Kentucky coach Tubby Smith still has questions about how his team matches up with the rest of the Southeastern Conference, the next two games could provide some answers.

        The eighth-ranked Wildcats (13-4, 3-2) will take on No.14 Alabama tonight in Rupp Arena before heading south for a showdown at No.5 Florida on Tuesday.

        “It will be a good barometer,” Smith said Friday of the meeting with the SEC West-leading Crimson Tide (16-3, 4-1). “Alabama's a ranked team and will bring in one of the most talented teams we'll play all season.”

        Kentucky should have as much confidence heading into today's game as it has had all season. The Wildcats have won four straight, including three on the road.

        Still, Kentucky's players know this stretch of the schedule is critical after dropping back-to-back conference games to Mississippi State and SEC East-leading Georgia earlier this month.

        “This could determine the rest of our season, at least in the conference,” sophomore Gerald Fitch said. “We've got two really big games coming up against ranked teams. If we could come up with wins in both of those games, that could put us on a pretty good roll.

        “We're still not quite back to where we were earlier in the season confidence-wise, back when we played Duke and Indiana. These games will be a measuring stick for us to see how close we are to getting back to where we were then.”

        Winning both will be no easy task, starting with the surging Crimson Tide.

        Alabama has won 10 of its last 11 games, its only loss during that stretch coming Jan.12 at archrival Auburn. The Crimson Tide have split four games against ranked opponents this season, beating Georgia and Memphis and falling to Missouri and UCLA.

        “Alabama is a team that's playing with a lot of confidence, because they've won on the road a few times,” Smith said. “They're very athletic and they're executing pretty well right now.”

        Versatile swingman Rod Grizzard, a 6-foot-8 junior, leads four Alabama players in double figures with 15.2 points. Junior forward Erwin Dudley also has emerged as an offensive threat, averaging 15.1 points and 8.5 rebounds.

        “We know Grizzard is their main guy, but they've got a lot of guys who can score,” said sophomore forward Erik Daniels, who notched a career-high eight rebounds and four assists in Kentucky's 69-62 victory over Auburn on Thursday. “Since we lost to them last year, we're just going to come out, play hard for a full 40 minutes and try to put them away.”

        Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who coached at Murray State before taking over in Tuscaloosa, has a 2-1 record against Kentucky, with both victories coming on the Crimson Tide's home floor.

        But this group, which contains four battle-tested juniors and a talented freshman point guard, should be ready for the challenge of playing in one of the SEC's most hostile environments.

        “We're older,” he said when asked about his team's road success this season. “We started four freshmen and a sophomore two years ago. Last year we started five sophomores.

        “We've finally got our head to at least the water level. Last year, we were under the water, trying to pop out every now and then.”


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