Friday, March 21, 2003
Wildcats trying to keep their focus on IUPUI
But war weighs heavily on players' minds
By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Kentucky's Gerald Fitch talks to his cousin each night, asking when he'll be deployed to Iraq. Keith Bogans tries not to worry about his mother, who works in the Navy Bureau of Medicine near the Pentagon. Coach Tubby Smith spoke to his team about his father, who served time in the military.
Kentucky's Erik Daniels, top, and Kelenna Azubuike stretch during practice Thursday afternoon at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Against this backdrop, America's No. 1 team today begins its postseason, one perhaps lessened in significance by the war in the Middle East.
"It's a tough time," UK fifth-year senior Jules Camara said. "It's hard staying focused on basketball, knowing what's going on."
UK (29-3) plays its first-round Midwest Regional game against IUPUI (20-13) at Gaylord Entertainment Center. The Jaguars are wrestling with similar emotions.
Junior guard Matt Crenshaw served nearly seven years in the Navy and had thought of re-enlisting before this season. At an impromptu address to his teammates Wednesday night, the 26-year-old Crenshaw spoke of the fear he had while in the military, and of a friend who was killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
Coach Ron Hunter said half his team broke down after Crenshaw's speech.
"It was a very, very emotional moment," Hunter said. "I think it helped us. Because afterward, I told our kids, coming in here to play Kentucky is absolutely nothing compared to what some of the people are going through right now.
"This has really affected my kids more than I thought."
UK's coaches have been respectful of the situation and haven't steered their players away from TV coverage of the war. Camara said he and walk-on Matt Heissenbuttel, who are the team's usual CNN and Fox News junkies, recently have been joined by many teammates.
"They're watching that a lot more than ESPN," Camara said.
The Wildcats have verbalized support for Fitch, whose cousin, Howard Davis, is in the Army. Davis, 23, is stationed in Syracuse, N.Y., and could be headed to the Middle East within the week, Fitch said.
"He grew up with me, even lived with me, so he's like a brother," Fitch said. "I hope he'd be safe. It's hard, but I'm not letting it be a distraction."
Said Bogans: "We're keeping the soldiers in our prayers. ... But a lot of soldiers said we should play these games for entertainment and distraction for folks back home, so hopefully we're helping out a little bit."
The key question is if UK will have trouble focusing. It is facing a team that has never been to the NCAAs, and a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1.
Hunter said he thinks his team is the best No. 16 seed in the field in the past decade.
"If you get caught up in playing a small school, one you've never heard of, you're going to be in trouble," he said.
The school prefers its initials to its formal name of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. It was once an answer on Jeopardy to the question, What's the longest name of a Division I school?
Joked ESPN analyst Jay Bilas this week: "I like Kentucky beating Indiana and Purdue at the same time. They can handle both of them."
Clearly, there's no pressure on the Jaguars.
"For a player, it's the chance of a lifetime," IUPUI senior Josh Murray said.
Hunter has played up the David-and-Goliath angle, even buying a slingshot this week. He recently showed his team the movie Hoosiers. Then on Thursday he replicated the scene in which Gene Hackman's character measured the court and height of the basket.
UK, of course, plays the overdog to everyone.
"We might be Goliath, but we've earned the right to be Goliath," UK sophomore Chuck Hayes said.
The Jaguars figure to try slowing UK with their matchup zone defense, as zones were somewhat effective against the Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Yet IUPUI allows 47.4 percent shooting by its opponents.
It also has committed 42 more turnovers than its opponents this season.
UK vs. IUPUI
Tipoff: 12:30 p.m. today, Gaylord Entertainment Center (18,500), Nashville, Tenn.
Records: UK 29-3, IUPUI 20-13.
TV: Ch. 12, 7.
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
Series: First meeting.
Coach: Tubby Smith (161-46, sixth season; 285-108 overall).
Coach: Ron Hunter (136-123, ninth season; same overall).
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