Wildcats Better Than Advertised

It would be hard to ever label Kentucky as the Southeastern Conference's surprise team. The Wildcats have been good in basketball far too long. That is not something I'd ever do in this space. I'm too old and a bit too conservative to fall victim to that mistake.

That doesn't mean I'm not a bit surprised that Kentucky is waltzing through the SEC so easily again this year. I thought the Wildcats might slip some even if it was only a tiny bit. I don't think they have slipped at all. In fact, the newest may be better than the last few versions.

Kentucky is so good that I think that it would be an even game if and when it faces top-ranked Illinois.

Arkansas coach Stan Heath admitted as much Thursday at his news conference.

"Great question," Heath said. "It would be a heckuva game. I don't know who I'd pick."

He wasn't sure, but UA junior guard Jonathon "Pookie" Modica might go with Kentucky.

" I admit that I didn't think Kentucky would be as good this year with the players they lost," Modica said. "But I've just watched some of their last few games and they are REALLY good. I won't lie. I was really impressed with what I saw of the Tennessee game Tuesday night.

"Illinois is a great offensive team, maybe a little better there than Kentucky. But the Wildcats can score, too, and they may do a better job of holding you down with that defense."

Neither Heath nor Modica expected to be comparing the Wildcats to the Illini when the season began.

"Kentucky is better than I thought they'd be," Heath said. "Tubby Smith has done a terrific job sustaining the consistency with this team. They replaced some new players and they have meshed the new ones with what they have coming back. They are playing the best basketball in our league right now."

The Wildcats lost three outstanding players from last year. I never imagined they would be able to absorb the departures of Eric Daniels, Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch so easily. That tells you about the work done by Smith and his UK coaching staff. I can remember the time when some in the Commonwealth State thought Tubby couldn't recruit or coach. They know better now.

Smith does as good a job with the Xs and Os as any coach in the SEC, especially on defense. A midweek open date this week has allowed Heath to watch more Kentucky film than usual over the last five days. He admires the adjustments the Wildcats make during games.

"I've probably seen 10 films on Kentucky," Heath said. "Some teams have given them problems with certain things early in the game, but they adjust and take that away. They do a great job of adjusting. More than anyone, they do a good job there.

"Louisville hurt them by doubling the post early in that game, but in the second half Kentucky made them pay. They passed out of those double teams."

When Louisville adjusted to that adjustment, Kentucky was ready and took advantage of the next variation. Heath has seen that over and over in his film study. You may fool the Wildcats for a few seconds, but not for long.

Consequently, Heath knows he must be armed with plenty of strategies for the Wildcats. He better be ready to make adjustments, too.

Will the Hogs be able to go with their same lineup, of late featuring the outside shooting of Mike Jones at the power forward slot? That would match Jones against UK star Chuck Hayes. Heath just smiled when asked about those possibilities.

Pressed a bit, he finally said, "We could just play zone, couldn't we?"

You get the feeling the Hogs will have to play some zone, but they will also face some situations with Jones guarding Hayes, a fierce offensive rebounder and dominating defender with a physical nature.

"I know I'm going to play against Hayes some," Jones said. "It may be that coach has to pull me because of that match-up and I'll understand that he's doing what is best for the team. I just know that for me to play in this game, I have to go down low and really battle and rebound because that is what this game is going to be about, defense and rebounds."

Everyone seems to look forward to it. As nice as the compliments were Thursday, no one seemed ready to back down.

"We better come out there with a swagger and an attitude that it's going to be fun," Modica said. "All the national TV cameras will be here. It's Kentucky. I grew up as much of a Kentucky fan as I did an Arkansas fan. But we want to show the country that Arkansas still has a good basketball program. We've been down and it's time to do something to show everyone that we can still play.

"Our guys are excited. They are having fun thinking about this game. People on campus are smiling and talking about it. Everyone knows who is coming in here. They are good and we know it. But we are excited to have this chance."

Kentucky is better than good. The Wildcats are better than even the Hogs expected.

CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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