Thursday, March 14, 2002

Kentucky tournament questions and answers

Have the Wildcats gotten better or worse?

By Jennifer Scroggins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What player will UK turn to?

        Tayshaun Prince. No surprises here. Prince, a senior forward, is the team's best player and has been for two years. This season, he leads the Wildcats with 16.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. He also tops UK with 40 total blocked shots.

        A second-team All-America for the second straight year, Prince has been solid all season but hasn't been quite the dominating force that was expected when he decided to return for his senior year. In Kentucky's best games — an overtime loss to Duke in December and the season-ending home victory over Florida — the Cats have been balanced rather than relying solely on Prince the way they did last season when he carried the team through February and the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

        Prince's biggest game this season was a career-high 31-point effort in UK's 79-59 victory Dec. 8 against North Carolina in December. That's tarnished a bit now by Carolina's dismal 8-20 showing. But Prince opening the game by hitting six straight 3-point shots was one of the most impressive displays by any player anywhere this season.

        The guy UK must have playing well

        Gerald Fitch. The sophomore guard has marred his season with two suspensions and another separate benching. UK managed to beat Tennessee and Arkansas without Fitch, but the Cats' two worst losses also came with Fitch out of the lineup. In an 86-73 loss Feb. 27 at Vanderbilt, Fitch had been reinstated following his arrest for using a fake ID, but he never played, and UK allowed Vandy to hit 11 3-pointers. On Friday, UK fell to South Carolina 70-57 in the second round of the SEC Tournament while Fitch, who had missed curfew, watched from the sidelines.

        Simply put, Fitch has to get it together to keep the Cats from falling apart. He's the team's third-leading scorer (9.6 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.8). He's also second on the team in steals (39 total) and might just be the Cats' most consistent 3-point shooter.

        UK makes just 31 percent of its long-range attempts, but Fitch hits 36 percent of his (30-of-83), best among players with more than 10 tries. And Fitch can hit in the clutch. His 3-pointer at Tennessee on Feb. 6 sent the game to overtime before UK fell 76-74. And his 3 on Senior Day gave UK the go-ahead points in a 70-67 victory over Florida.

        The team UK doesn't want to face

        Georgia. Fortunately for the Cats, the Bulldogs are in the bottom half of the East bracket. Georgia swept its two SEC East meetings with UK this season, 88-84 in Rupp Arena and 78-69 in Athens. Though it's never easy to beat a team three times (see: UK vs. South Carolina, Maryland vs. N.C. State, and Indiana vs. Iowa), Georgia looked in the second game as if it were simply the superior team.

        UK has seemed fragile all season, emotionally. Certainly the off-court distractions have something to do with that. But these Cats might not have the mental toughness to face Georgia again and achieve a different result.

        What gives UK its best hope to get to Atlanta?

        Plain, old talent. Just ask Duke and North Carolina what the Cats are like when they're playing well. Prince is one of the 10 best players in America. Junior guard Keith Bogans is supposed to be. Fitch might be the most underrated player in the history of Dick Vitale, and freshman forward Chuck Hayes, now in the starting lineup, has shown real maturation and a knack for being around the ball, a la Fitch.

        And although the Cats have had an up-and-down season, they've done it against the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation, including play in the SEC, which boasts the No. 1 overall RPI.

        What could get UK bounced in the first round?

        A wise man once said, “The game's a whole lot easier when the ball goes in the hoop.” But sometimes the Cats just cannot shoot. Witness the South Carolina game last week: 1-of-19 3-point shooting and 31 percent field goal shooting overall. That just isn't going to win ballgames against anyone.

        UK opened the season with a 33 percent effort in the loss to Western Kentucky that included a 2-of-18 long-range performance. Overall, UK shot below 40 percent seven times this season, including five of the last seven games.

        What was UK's best win

        UK 70, Florida 67, March 2 in Rupp Arena. UK came in with a mission: Win, and get a first-round SEC Tournament bye. It accomplished its goal, rallying from 11 points down in the first half to do so. The Cats' depth was a huge factor, as the UK bench outscored Florida's 30-0.

        That said, the Florida win was not UK's best game. No, that was actually a loss, the 95-92 overtime defeat to Duke Dec. 18 at the Meadowlands. The Cats shot 45 percent and outrebounded the Blue Devils 51-34. Maybe more important, UK showed guts and resilience and played toe to toe with the team everyone thought would run away with a second straight national championship.

        What was Valparaiso's best win?

        According to Clark Kellogg, it was the Crusaders' first-round upset of UK in the NCAA Tournament. But since that hasn't happened yet, it must have been Valparaiso 70, Charlotte 63, at Charlotte, N.C. It turned out to be the Crusaders' only victory over an NCAA Tournament team.

        Not unlike UK, however, Valpo's best game might have been a loss: a 74-70 defeat at the hands of Pac-10 Tournament champion Arizona Dec. 30 in the Fiesta Bowl Classic.

        What was UK's worst loss?

        South Carolina 70, UK 57, Friday in the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome. The Cats were outclassed by a team they'd swept in regular-season play. UK outrebounded the Gamecocks 41-28, but it was useless as the Cats shot a mere 31 percent.

  &        nbsp;     What was Valparaiso's worst loss?

Southern Utah 78, Valpo 62, Jan. 10 at home. Southern Utah (yes, it's in the Mid-Continent Conference for some reason) boasts a less-than-stellar 255 RPI and finished the season 9-16.

        To their credit, the Crusaders bounced back, winning their next nine games and 14 of 15 to close out the season. Valpo ended with an RPI of 83, but its strength of schedule rated only 246.

        Where is UK now compared to November? What has gotten better or worse?

        It's probably not a good thing for the Cats that they played their best games in December. Against North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Louisville, UK endured a critical stretch of talented rivals virtually unscathed. The Cats lost only to Duke and looked like world-beaters in the process.

        But SEC play exposed the Cats' weaknesses: shooting, and defending the 3-pointer. In eight regular-season SEC games, UK allowed opponents to shoot better than 35 percent from 3-point range, resulting in four losses. Of the four games they won, only one was by more than three points. That one was a 91-74 victory over South Carolina in which the Cats were 11-of-22 from long range, which isn't terribly likely to happen again.

        Perhaps intangible factors are what has changed most since November. In the fall, UK was a deep team with limitless potential. In the spring,UK's depth isn't all it was cracked up to be. Big man Marvin Stone has transfered to Louisville; freshman guard Rashaad Carruth is more of a shameless gunner than a genuine 3-point threat off the bench (73 of his 115 attempts have been 3s; he has made 26); and Fitch and freshman guard Adam Chiles have been so on-again-off-again with coach Tubby Smith, they've turned Wildcat Lodge into South Fork.

        The same team that scared Duke looked cowed by South Carolina, and the Cats haven't even come close to meeting their potential.

        Has UK gotten better or worse? Who knows.


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