Monday, March 11, 2002

UK warned: Don't look ahead

Unpredictable Wildcats face 25-7 Valparaiso

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — A disastrous first-round loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament dropped 12th-ranked Kentucky to a No.4 seed in the East for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats (20-9) will take on 13th-seeded Valparaiso (25-7), the Mid-Continent Conference regular-season and tournament champion, in a first-round game Thursday in St.Louis.

        “We're looking forward to a good matchup with a tough Valparaiso team,” Kentucky forward Tayshaun Prince said. “Personally, this tournament is very special for me because it's my last chance at winning a national championship with Kentucky.

        “We just have to come together now and focus on winning our next six games.”

        Kentucky, college basketball's winningest program, won seven of its last 10 games entering the SEC tournament but played its worst game of the season in its surprising 70-57 loss to South Carolina.

        The Wildcats are no strangers to the NCAA tournament. They own NCAA records for appearances (43), tournament games (124) and victories (87) and have won eight national championships.

        Valparaiso, which set a school-record with 25 victories, beat IUPUI 88-55 to claim its conference title.

        “They've been very successful recently and this is probably the most successful and most experienced team (Drew) has ever assembled,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.

        The Crusaders have won five straight games and 14 of their last 15 as they make their sixth trip to the NCAA tournament.

        “We're excited about being back for the NCAA tournament and have a tremendous amount of respect for Kentucky and its tradition,” said Valparaiso coach Homer Drew, who has spent 26 years as a college coach and won his 500th game last month.

        Of Valparaiso's seven losses, two came at the hands of top-ranked Kansas and No.15 Arizona.

        The Crusaders led by a point at Arizona with 90 seconds to play before losing 74-70 and were tied with five minutes to play at Kansas before falling 81-73.

        Kentucky has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde season, looking like one of the nation's best teams on some nights and one of the conference's doormats on others.

        Off-court distractions have plagued the Wildcats all season.

        Smith benched sophomore guard Gerald Fitch — the team's most consistent player much of the season — against the Gamecocks. Although he did not give a reason, he said Fitch would play in the NCAA tournament.

        The coach said the Wildcats can't afford to look past Valparaiso toward the Marquette-Tulsa winner on Saturday.

        “I remember when we were the No.12 seed at Tulsa and we upset No.5 UCLA in the first round of the 1994 tournament,” Smith said. “I've been in their shoes.

Goliaths don't scare Valparaiso
UK's road to title game

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- UK warned: Don't look ahead
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