Tuesday, December 10, 2002
Cats thriving on early togetherness
By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Final exams begin next week at Kentucky, but the Wildcats have already passed their early-season chemistry test.
The No. 12 Wildcats (4-1) were a splintered, bickering group last season, and that lack of cohesion often spilled onto the court.
That hasn't been a problem so far this season.
"We're all on the same page. Everybody knows where everybody else is coming from," said forward Chuck Hayes, who's averaging 9.2 points and five rebounds per game.
The Wildcats visit Tulane (3-4) on Tuesday night in search of their fourth straight win.
Kentucky has topped 60 percent shooting in its past two games, including a 98-81 win over North Carolina on Saturday.
"In the past, we haven't gotten off to a good start. This year, everybody knows their roles and we haven't had any distractions yet," said senior Keith Bogans, Kentucky's leading scorer, averaging 18 points per game. "We've been able to focus a lot more on basketball."
The clicking offense has started with guard Gerald Fitch, who was often embroiled in the team's many controversies last season.
This year, the junior has proven to be a capable substitute for Cliff Hawkins at point guard. Hawkins is academically ineligible until later this month.
Fitch scored 18 points in Kentucky's 84-64 win over High Point last Tuesday and had a career-high 25 points against the Tar Heels. He went 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the two games and was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. He leads the Cats with 18 assists.
"I'm still learning to play (point guard), but each game, I feel more comfortable," Fitch said. "I owe that to my teammates. When I make a mistake, they boost my confidence back up. That's big for someone who's playing a position he's not familiar with."
Another key for the Cats has been the resurgence of Marquis Estill, who's third on the team with 13 points per game. Coach Tubby Smith has inserted 6-foot-11 Jules Camara into the starting lineup alongside the 6-9 Estill, and that move has worked.
Estill scored 20 points against North Carolina, all in the second half, finishing 9-of-13. He's shooting 72 percent from the field this season, which leads the Southeastern Conference.
"'Quise is big, he's strong, he's got great hands," Bogans said. "If he gets it, he's either going to get fouled or he's going to score. He has the best field goal percentage on the team, so why not get him the ball?"
Plagued by knee problems in past seasons, Estill is healthy now and becoming more confident with each game.
"I've got the mindset now to be more aggressive inside," Estill said. "The last couple of years, I wasn't as strong and didn't attack the basket like I do now."
Another plus for Kentucky has been the solid play of Hayes, who moved into Antwain Barbour's small forward position. Barbour broke his hand on Dec. 1, but Hayes has filled in nicely, averaging 13.5 points and six rebounds in the two games since Barbour's injury.
Junior Erik Daniels returned Saturday from a four-game suspension - imposed because he played in two summer leagues - and contributed immediately, with nine points, five rebounds and two assists.
"I had a lot of energy against North Carolina. I was just happy to be back out there with my teammates," the 6-8 Daniels said.
Smith is wary of the early success. The Wildcats have won the rebounding battle in only two games and struggled with their transition defense.
"We've got a lot to improve on and a lot of areas we have to get better at," he said.
Still, the Wildcats feel a much more positive atmosphere around this year's team.
"We're all in the same boat," Hayes said. "We're pushing each other up and down the court, we're even pushing each other in the weight room. We're just ready to play."
No. 12 UK at TulaneTipoff: 9 p.m. today, New Orleans Arena (17,832), New Orleans.
Records: UK 4-1, Tulane 3-4.
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
Series: UK leads 40-5.
Line: UK by 11 1/2
Coach: Tubby Smith (136-44, sixth season; 260-106 overall)
Coach: Shawn Finney (26-40, third season; same overall)
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