Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Wildcats doing their homework during streak



By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. - A little extra work has turned Kentucky into a defensive force. The third-ranked Wildcats (18-3, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) have won 12 straight heading into Tuesday's game against No. 20 Georgia (13-6, 5-3). During their streak, the Wildcats have forced 19 turnovers per game and held eight teams below 40 percent shooting.

In conference games, Kentucky leads the league in scoring defense (57.6 points per game), field-goal percentage defense (40.2), 3-point field-goal percentage defense (29.4) and turnover margin (plus-4.5).

"I don't think we're superior physically," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "Our guys are just playing so well together right now, recognizing and believing we are a good defensive team."

The Wildcats have specialized in shutting down their opponents' primary scoring threat during their winning streak, their second-longest in Smith's six seasons.

Some examples:

-> Notre Dame's Chris Thomas went 4-for-17 with nine turnovers in an 88-73 loss to Kentucky on Jan. 18.

-> Auburn's Marquis Daniels, the SEC's second-leading scorer, went 5-of-14 for 11 points in the Tigers' 67-51 loss Jan. 22.

-> Alabama's Erwin Dudley went 0-for-6 with two turnovers in Kentucky's 63-46 win in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 25.

-> Mississippi's Justin Reed didn't score in the first half of the Wildcats' 80-62 win in Oxford last weekend.

"The coaches do a good job of letting us know what we need to take away (from opponents) for the defense to be really effective," point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "It's fun when we're doing the things on and off the court the right way."

"When we get our scouting reports, we read over them and try to find things on our own," guard Gerald Fitch said. "We take a lot of pride in knowing the scouting report, because that's a big help to us."

Next on the list of targets is Georgia's duo of Ezra Williams and Jarvis Hayes, the league's fourth- and fifth-leading scorers.

Kentucky's game plans didn't work on either player in two meetings last year.

Williams scored 20 and Hayes had 19 in Georgia's 78-69 win in Athens last Feb. 16. A month earlier, Hayes had a career-high 30 and Williams 20 in the Bulldogs' 88-84 victory at Rupp Arena.

"They have great range and that stretches your defense," Smith said of the duo. "And they're very athletic and can take it off the dribble and pull up. That makes them a real tough matchup."

Smith suggested one way to stop Hayes and Williams may be to control point guard Rashad Wright, who leads the SEC with 5.58 assists per game.

"He knows where each player likes the ball delivered. He puts that ball right on Jarvis and Ezra and when they catch it, they're in rhythm," Smith said. "He's a big, big key to how that team flows."

The Bulldogs are ranked third in the latest Ratings Percentage Index, which measures strength of schedule. But Georgia has lost two of its last three games and three of its last four on the road.

"We haven't been sharp, we haven't been quick, we just haven't executed and played 40 minutes and haven't played every possession like we need to," Georgia coach Jim Harrick said.

Smith's team hasn't encountered such problems, even when he's called on his reserves. Hawkins has capably backed up Fitch at the point and center Jules Camara has provided valuable minutes behind Marquis Estill.

"We've gotten that ability to not lose anything when we bring other guys into the game," Smith said. "The key is getting people to understand their roles and accept their roles. And when they get a chance to produce, they produce."

The Wildcats haven't been ranked this high since December 1998, when they were third behind second-ranked Duke and No. 1 Connecticut.

The Wildcats were predictably subdued about their rise into the top-5.

"That's for the fans and other people," Fitch said. "When you start thinking about the rankings, you start to get distracted. Right now, we've got a strong focus and we're trying to keep it."

No. 3 UK vs. No. 20 Georgia

Tipoff: 9 p.m. today, Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington.

Records: UK 18-3 (8-0 SEC), Georgia 13-6 (5-3).

Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).

TV: ESPN.

Series: UK leads 99-19.

Line: UK by 7 1/2.

GEORGIA

PlayerYr.Ht.PPG
Jarvis HayesJr.6-717.3
Chris DanielsJr.6-710.6
Steve ThomasJr.6-810.0
Ezra WilliamsSr.6-417.5
Rashad WrightJr.6-38.2
Coach: Jim Harrick (61-51, fourth season; 464-233 overall)

KENTUCKY

PlayerYr.Ht.PPG
Chuck HayesSo.6-69.0
Erik DanielsJr.6-810.2
Marquis EstillSr.6-911.1
Keith BogansSr.6-516.7
Gerald FitchJr.6-312.3
Coach: Tubby Smith (150-46, sixth year; 274-108 overall)




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