Monday, March 24, 2003

At Kentucky, the defense never rests

The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Midway through the first half in the Gaylord Entertainment Center Sunday, Utah's Richard Chaney found momentary order amid chaos.

He had just been hacked on a short jump shot and was sent to the foul line.

First shot: No good.

Second shot: No good.

It figures. Seldom does anyone get this kind of relief from Kentucky's defense. Chaney was stunned to find no hand in his face and no Wildcat breathing down his neck. The shock showed in the two masonry products that left dents on the rim.

This is the cornerstone of all things blue. Offensive glitz is all well and good, but it is the Wildcats' defensive dirty work that is so disarming and makes this team such a national-championship threat.

Utah is the latest victim. Judging from what happened in the first two rounds of the Midwest Regional in Rupp Arena-South, there will be others.

"They've got the look of a Final Four team, maybe a national championship team," Utah Coach Rick Majerus said.

Unlike many others in the upper crust of college basketball, the 'Cats do not view defense as a necessary evil. It is blue-collar basketball by the Big Blue, where every steal, every block, every shot-clock violation is duly recorded and praised.

The Wildcats play defense with a blunt object. They eschew tricky double-teams or fancy traps in favor of physical, in-your-face basketball. It is less about strategy and more about effort.

"There's nothing special about what we do on defense," Kentucky guard Keith Bogans said with a shrug. "We don't try to fool anybody or trick anybody. It's just good, hard-nosed defense."

Said teammate Gerald Fitch: "It's a mindset. You don't want to be the weak link that lets somebody get an open shot. We take more pride in our defense than in our offense."

In keeping with the 'Cat-scratching theme that has marked this 25-game win streak, Kentucky's defense created a vacuum that sucked the very life out of Utah's offense. The Utes made only three of their first 12 shots and ultimately lost 74-54.

For the Utes, it was a matter of picking their poison. Do you take the first decent shot available or do you set screens and make a dozen passes in hopes of getting something better?

Utah was darned if it did, darned if it didn't. Shots taken early in a possession played right into the Wildcats' paws, keeping the tempo at the quick pace Kentucky prefers. Working the ball patiently risked a steal or a shot-clock violation.

The trend was established early. Utah trailed just 8-7 before the Utes' offense disappeared into the Big Blue hole. Over the next 6 1/2 minutes, nine Utah possessions were rendered null and void. The shot clock elapsed once and ran so low on two other occasions that the Utes were forced to yank up something in the general vicinity of the rim.

"They just get in your face and stay there," said guard Marc Jackson, who scored 19 points and often seemed to be the only Utah player willing to dribble into harm's way.

"They're just so big and so athletic that you have trouble getting a good shot. They don't give you any easy shots."

And the beatings go on. Kentucky hasn't flinched in 25 games dating to Dec. 30. If the streak reaches 29, Tubby Smith will own his second national title in six years at Kentucky.

If it comes to that, the method to this March Madness will be no secret. At Kentucky, the defense never rests.

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