'Hard-Nosed' Hayes Should Be Ready For Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE -- Kentucky coach Tubby Smith had to chuckle as he was talking about senior forward Chuck Hayes and his broken nose suffered Tuesday against Tennessee.

"If anybody can handle things or overcome pain, Chuck Hayes can," Smith said. "He's a tough, hard-nosed kid."

Smith laughed while delivering the "hard-nosed" line, but Hayes' injury is no joking matter for the Wildcats.

Smith calls Hayes the "heart and soul" of his seventh-ranked team and after Kentucky was initially shook by his first-half injury Tuesday, the rest of the Wildcats picked up the slack and rolled to an 84-62 win.

Hayes, who averages 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, had his tender mug fitted for a hard protective mask on Thursday and Smith expects him to play Saturday when Kentucky (15-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) travels to Fayetteville to play Arkansas (14-5, 2-4) for a nationally televised game at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.

"Kentucky is probably playing the best basketball of anyone in our league," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath. "Their team is just excelling in so many areas be it defense or rebounding or forcing turnovers. Just all kinds of areas they're really playing the game.

"They can hit you so many different ways."

Kentucky's only two setbacks this year have come at No. 3 North Carolina and at home to No. 6 Kansas and the Wildcats remain the last undefeated team in SEC play.

Kentucky won its last two games against LSU and Tennessee by a combined 53 points after scoring that total while rallying from a 29-16 halftime deficit to win 53-50 at Ole Miss last Wednesday.

The rally against Ole Miss was nearly identical to Kentucky's comeback win against No. 12 Louisville on Dec. 18.

The Wildcats scored 16 points on 5 of 24 shooting in the first half of both games and in each it was transfer point guard Patrick Sparks providing the game-sealing free throws.

Sparks hit three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to give Kentucky a 60-58 win against Louisville and made two clinchers with less than 15 seconds left against Ole Miss.

After Kentucky's loss of steady backcourt mates Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins to graduation, Sparks has meshed seamlessly in his first season for the Wildcats and eased the transition for freshmen guards Ramel Bradley and Rajon Rondo.

"When we can get the ball in Rajon's hands and then our point guard's (Sparks) hands and everyone else does their job, we're usually a little more successful in making plays," Smith said. "I've been very pleased with both Ramel and Rajon's leadership and their gamesmanship as they continue to learn to play at this level."

Sparks, who transferred from Western Kentucky two years ago, is averaging 4.8 assists and 11.9 points per game this season.

Kentucky starts the senior Hayes, junior Sparks and leading scorer Kelenna Azubuike (14.4 ppg) and freshmen Rondo and 6-foot-11 center Randolph Morris, who is averaging 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

Morris has as many turnovers (15) as blocks and has a team-high 49 fouls in 18.4 minutes per game.

"Freshman post players are a lot different than freshman guards and perimeter people," Smith said. "Their job is a lot tougher. They're usually the last line of defense. You run from baseline to baseline. It's not like the other team is going to wait for you to get there. They will attack constantly. You're going up against some skilled post players that know how to play inside.

"His development is on track. Certainly, we'd like to see him rebound more, stay out of foul trouble more. He's doing the things we need him to do. I think everybody could be better."

Rondo and Morris were both McDonald's All-Americans and Smith's third, Joe Crawford, quit the team in a dispute over playing time two weeks ago.

Rondo was a major player in Kentucky's comeback against Ole Miss, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the second half. He's averaging 8 points per game and has a team-high 44 steals.

"He's learning everyday in practice how to push the ball and when to bring it out, when to set it up, who can score in what position," Smith said of Rondo. "I like the way he's developed into a leader, and that's the thing that has impressed me the most."

Heath called 7-3 backup center Shagari Alleyne "a one-man zone" under the basket and he has a team-high 34 blocks while playing 12.8 minutes per game.

In SEC games only, Kentucky is leading the league in rebounding defense, allowing opponents 26.7 boards per game, and is second in rebounding margin at plus-8.8 per game.

Arkansas is minus-5.2 in conference games in rebound margin.

"We have to do a good job rebounding to give ourselves a chance in this game," Heath said. "We're going to have to play our best basketball and the key for us is rebounding."

In all games, the Wildcats are the top scoring defense in the SEC allowing 57.9 points per game.

Kentucky is forcing a league-leading 19.3 turnovers per game while giving it away just 12.5 times.

The Wildcats are also one of the best passing teams in the conference with 16.4 assists per game, just behind Vanderbilt's 16.6, and are the No. 1 assist-turnover ratio team in the SEC.

"We've been trying to play up-tempo most of the year," Smith said. "We've been turning people over. Unfortunately, we haven't been as successful in converting those turnovers to points. You can just see it with the Ole Miss game. We had about six or seven opportunities off turnovers and we just gave it back with missed layups.

"I can see Patrick now missing two easy baskets, and I can see Kelenna turning it over. We converted (against LSU and Tennessee)."

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