BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--Kentucky has been picked by preseason publications, magazines, and sportswriters as one of the top teams in the country this year. Tradition tells you, though, that coaches and players routinely downplay expectations, preferring instead to demonstrate it on the court.
Not at Kentucky.
Orlando "Tubby" Smith, head coach of the Wildcats, didn't mince words:
"I'm just trying to be honest. I am excited about this team. It is one of the better, more talented teams I've had.
The media members supported those thoughts, making Kentucky the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC for the first time in three years, even though the Cats have won a share of the title each of those years. Kentucky received 20 of 23 first place votes, easily eclipsing Florida, who received the additional three votes.
Maybe it was a tradition started by ex-Wildcat Jamaal Magloire who predicted the Cats would win the national championship in 1998. Current Cat and returning leading scorer Keith Bogans fell just short of that comment, but was optimistic, nevertheless, and credited thoughts of grabbing the brass ring as key to him withdrawing from the NBA draft this summer and returning to school.
"I saw the opportunity I had to come back to college and a top team to compete for the national championship. A lot of guys didn't have that opportunity like I had. That played a key role in coming back. When Tayshaun said he was coming back, I was in Chicago. I called him and we talked. It hit me right there about the chance we'd have with everybody coming back. We only lose Saul as a senior. I just sat there and really started thinking. If I go back, we have a great chance to win the national championship."
How good would Kentucky have been without Keith and Tayshaun Prince, both of whom withdrew their names from the NBA draft to return to college? Certainly the team is much better now than it would've been, but Keith noted that the team was talented, nevertheless.
"Take Tayshaun and me away from this team, everybody would be young, but we'd still have a lot of great players...especially Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Marvin....all those guys, they all know how to play the game."
For the Cats to win the national championship this year, they'll have to have contributions from the veterans as well as from newcomers and players without much experience. Coach Tubby Smith saw incoming freshman Chuck Hayes as one to watch this year, and spoke about what to expect from the freshman for the coming season.
"Chuck Hayes has been the most pleasant surprise. Josh Carrier has (also) played awfully well. Chuck Hayes because of his versatility--I didn't realize his perimeter skills were so well-honed and he's working extremely hard. Josh, his basketball I.Q. is very high. Knows the game, appreciates the game. Coming from a family background where his dad was a pro player and coach, so he understands what is expected of him and how to play the game. I think Rashaad Carruth is going to be an outstanding player, he really shoots the ball, but he's got to learn to play some defense. At this juncture, the other freshmen are probably ahead of him in that regard. And Adam Chiles, the other freshman, because we have two experienced point guards, his development will take some time. We'll possibly redshirt him."
Keith Bogans saw major improvements from the freshmen and sophomores in the first couple of weeks of practice.
"All the young guys have made great strides. They know what Coach expects of them. He won't take nothing but their best. As long as they going out doing that every day, they have no choice but to get better. Especially Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch--he's going to be a great player. He's going to show a lot this year. A lot of people don't really talk about him that much, but he's a great basketball player."
Fitch scored 31 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and had six assists in UK's Blue-White scrimmage a week ago. That performance didn't surprise teammate Keith Bogans.
"The Blue White game did not surprise me at all, cause I know what type of player he is. He knows how to play the game. A lot of people think because he wasn't highly recruited by a lot of schools and they didn't hear about him that he can't play the game. I don't know what they were thinking about when he was coming out of high school, but he's one of the best players I've seen. To be that small and do some of the things he does, he's a great basketball player."
Many people credited Gerald Fitch's insertion in the starting lineup last year, replacing Marvin Stone, as a key to the team's success. Count head coach Tubby Smith as one of those people.
"We needed to make a change at that particular time (after UK's 3-5 start), and Jason was giving us that real presence inside; that real aggressivenss inside that Marvin wasn't giving us at the time. Gerald Fitch was playing great; how do we get him in the lineup? Outside of Saul, Gerald was probably second or third (best) defender."
Fitch began the year as the guy that did all the little things that help a team that don't necessarily show up in the boxscore, and the guy that didn't mind playing defense to help the team win. Those concepts are important to head coach Tubby Smith.
"The way you play and the way you win in this program is by playing defense and doing all those little things. We've got guys that can score." In Gerald Fitch, the Cats may have found a guy that can do it all.
The Cats also welcome back one of the most athletic players on the team, 4th year Junior Souleymane "Jules" Camara. The 6-11 F/C who sat out last season after violating the school's student athlete alcohol policy runs the court well, leaps and, perhaps most of all, blocks shots, as Keith Bogans noted. "We've got a shot blocker (back this year). We had Jamaal my freshman year. We probably won't get screamed at as much if our guy beats us because Jules can swat it out."
The Cats open up their season Tuesday night with an exhibition game against Nike Elite, and begin their official quest for a national championship with their season opener in the NABC Classic November 15 against Western Kentucky.
by Darrell Cartwright
Be sure and check out KSR's continuing coverage of Tipoff 2002 SEC Media Days
:Stone expected to play big part in UK's success
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SEC Media Voting: Cats and Vols on top
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