Tuesday, March 18, 2003

No. 1 ranking increases ante for UK to win it all

But Cats vow pressure won't affect title run

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If there was a way to ratchet up expectations one last notch before Kentucky begins the NCAA Tournament, it happened Monday.

UK (29-3) was voted No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll, its first time reaching that post in Tubby Smith's tenure and its first season-ending top ranking since 1978.

"It just means more pressure, more expectations," sophomore forward Chuck Hayes said.

A season that began with minimal hype - UK's No. 17 preseason ranking was its lowest since 1990 - has now reached the opposite extreme.

"We've put ourselves in a position where everybody expects us to win it all," junior guard Gerald Fitch said. "If we don't, we'll definitely be disappointed."

UK last held the No. 1 ranking entering the 1996 Southeastern Conference Tournament. A loss there dropped it to No. 2 in the final poll, but those Wildcats rebounded to win the NCAA title.

Smith said Monday he doesn't expect the ranking to have any negative repercussions.

"I don't think there's that much more pressure you can add," he said. "We play a tough schedule. We play in the best conference in the country. Everyone gives Kentucky their best shot.

"We appreciate (the ranking); it's great recognition. But I don't think it's going to change how we approach anything."

If nothing else, UK's bandwagon is now full. Sunday night, the talking heads raved about UK's chances, especially in what many consider a mediocre Midwest Region. UK opens tournament play Friday against IUPUI (20-13) in Nashville, Tenn.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said Monday that UK had proven itself as the nation's best team. A day earlier, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury had said the same.

"I think it's very obvious they're going to be back down here in New Orleans," Stansbury said after falling to UK there in the SEC title game.

This ranking is no guarantee. Just three of the last 20 teams ranked No. 1 entering the tournament have managed to win the title: Duke in 1992 and 2001, and UCLA in 1995.

The Wildcats enter on a 23-game winning streak that ranks as the sixth-longest in school history.

"We've faced pressure ... ever since we started the winning streak," junior guard Cliff Hawkins said. "Everybody wants to take this team down. I don't think it'll affect us."

The sentiment among the Wildcats after the SEC Tournament title was that only a national championship would satisfy them now. They claimed that as the reason for not cutting down the nets Sunday. "We don't want to cut down two sets of nets," senior guard Keith Bogans said.

Yet Smith wants to make it clear that he and his players are proud of their accomplishments, including the SEC's first unbeaten run through both league play and the conference tournament since 1952. He said the season shouldn't be judged a disappointment if UK falls in the NCAAs.

"Any time you bow out, you'll look at it with colored lenses on," he said of his players. "But (if they lose), they should realize later all that we've accomplished."

This is the eighth time UK has finished No. 1, matching UCLA's total as the most in the nation.

The AP began ranking teams in the 1948-49 season, and four of UK's No. 1 finishes occurred in the first five years of the poll.

UK also reached the top spot - losing it before the final poll - in eight other seasons.


E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com

Kentucky vs. IUPUI

When: 12:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville, Tenn.

Seeds: UK - No. 1; IUPUI - No. 16

Special NCAA hoops section; Bracket contest

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NIT: Iowa 62, Valparaiso 60
UCLA fires Lavin