Thursday, March 13, 2003

A nice problem to have:
Does UK need to lose?

Winning out would mean 29 straight

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEXINGTON - Kentucky won't be going to New Orleans to lose. But better to lose there now than later.

That's the conventional wisdom for teams riding long winning streaks into March. If UK (26-3) is to return to the Big Easy for the Final Four and prevail, a defeat this weekend in the Southeastern Conference Tournament conceivably could refocus the team for the NCAA Tournament.

Not that Tubby Smith wants to hear that.

"You can learn as much from winning," the UK coach said, "as long as you prepare guys and come with the right mental attitude."

The current 20-game winning streak is the eighth-longest in school history and the second-longest since the 1966 "Rupp's Runts." The longest run of this generation, though, could act as a cautionary tale.

That was the 27-game tear UK rode into the 1996 SEC championship game against Mississippi State. UK was 28-1 and ranked No. 1, winning by an average margin of 24 points, but lost 84-73 to the Bulldogs.

After the game, then-UK coach Rick Pitino said: "I don't think we could make a serious run unless we lost tonight. Because things have come too easy."

Pitino benched star Antoine Walker during the second half of that game, leaving some to wonder if Pitino tried to procure defeat.

Either way, UK responded by winning the national championship.

Should UK not fall this weekend, that would mean its streak would have to reach 29 games to capture the NCAA title. That would be the longest in-season streak in school history and the second-longest overall, behind a 32-game run spanning the 1953-54 and '54-55 seasons.

The concern is overconfidence. But Smith says his staff finds flaws to point out during each film session and that his team has responded well to criticism.

His coaching brethren in the SEC mostly back him up.

Arkansas coach Stan Heath was an assistant on Michigan State's 2000 national championship team, which had a five-game run entering the NCAAs.

"I'm a strong proponent of you want to win every game possible," Heath said.

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried was an assistant on the 1995 UCLA team that took a 13-game winning streak into the NCAAs yet managed to win the title.

"People think a loss takes the pressure off," Gottfried said. "I don't buy that. You're playing well; you want to keep on playing well."

Yet there's the lesson-to-be-learned factor, though. Florida coach Billy Donovan said his team's loss to Auburn in the 2000 SEC quarterfinals helped fuel its run to the NCAA final.

"I really felt from a defensive standpoint we fouled entirely too much in our style of play, and (the Auburn loss) was a great, valuable lesson about that," Donovan said.

Arkansas in 1994 had its 12-game winning streak snapped by UK in the SEC semifinals, then regrouped to win it all.

The Cats say they won't collapse under the weight of their win streak.

"There's no pressure," sophomore Chuck Hayes said. "We just focus on each game."

Said senior Keith Bogans: "Losing is something nobody likes. When we're winning, we still find things to work on."

Scores and game wrap-ups

Bearcats blindsided by Southern Miss
DAUGHERTY: Committee holds UC's fate
Like Mardi Gras for Southern Miss
Other Conference USA games
C-USA Tournament Glance
Marquette's Wade C-USA player of year

XU right at home in UD Arena
West again A-10 player of year
Dayton finally gets to play

For Miami, first things first
Does UK need to lose?
UK sweeps SEC coaches' honors
Big East: St. John's trips Notre Dame
Wagner wins Northeast berth
Weber St. to represent Big Sky
Georgia players sue school

Bengals clearing path for Palmer
TE Kelly first addition to Bengals' offense
Playoffs Spikes' top priority in Buffalo
Blake steps into Arizona QB job
Luchey ready to start winning
NFL minorities organize
Raiders sign ex-49er Stubblefield
Officiating mistakes lead to dismissals

Manzanillo could land in bullpen
Reds Notebook: Wilson's debut delayed
Yankees 10, Reds 5
Schott hospitalized again
Piazza charges mound after plunking
Other spring training games
Spring Training Standings
Bonds' ball dispute settled
Baseball Notebook: Ex-Red may have cancer

Arnie and Jack stage final go-round

Roddick rides serve to second-round win

Today's basketball schedule
NCH girls carry city banner to state
6-8 Clemons leads Reading to final
Madeira's surprise run ends
Middletown dumps boys basketball coach
Ky. Games: Holy Cross, Boone, Brossart advance