LEXINGTON, Ky. --- For those wondering if Kentucky may get caught peeking around VMI on the schedule and setting sights on a Saturday showdown with North Carolina, Keith Bogans says to lay those concerns aside.
"We just want to play somebody," the Wildcats' junior guard said of the week-long layoff since an 82-68 win over Kent State. "I know I'm fired up. We've just been practicing, so I know I'm hungry to play again. It was killing me Saturday not having a game."
"After a week off, it doesn't matter who you play," added senior captain Tayshaun Prince. "We're only focused on this team and getting better each time out. Nobody's mentioned a thing about North Carolina or anyone else. Coach Smith wouldn't let that happen."
No. 11 Kentucky (3-1) plays host to VMI (1-2) on Wednesday at Rupp Arena before entering the most anticipated stretch of its non-conference schedule. Although the Cats have matchups with North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Louisville among their next five games, UK coach Tubby Smith wants the attention squarely on the task at hand.
"You don't play too many teams today that aren't improved," he said. "And it seems like we bring out the best in teams, which is the way it should be when you're competing. You want your opposition to be at their best, and you want to be at your best."
VMI is coming off its best performance of the young season, a 74-73 loss at Virginia Tech. The Keydets appeared to be on their way to a big upset before the Hokies converted a three-point play with 1.4 seconds left. In its other two games, VMI defeated Mary Washington (76-51) and fell to Morehead State squad (98-87).
The game against Kyle Macy's squad, Smith said, is indicative of the way the Keydets like to play.
"One of the things we really have to be conscious of against a good VMI team is that we get back in transition," Smith said. "They're a team that likes to put the ball up, and they like to push the ball up the court... But we need to push the ball up and down the court as well, so I think you'll see a high-scoring game."
VMI is led by 6-foot-5 freshman forward Jason Conley, who is averaging 27.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. An excellent shooter (43% FG, 36% 3PFG, 79% FT), he recorded a game-high 26 points against Virginia Tech.
"He can score from all over the court," Smith said. "He's very athletic, a 6-5 forward who can play inside or outside, but primarily he's an outside player. He'll drive you to the basket, do a lot of different things, so it will be a challenge for Keith (Bogans) or Gerald (Fitch) or whoever's guarding him to contain him and make him take tougher shots."
The Keydets are also getting double-figure scoring from sophomore forward Radee Skipworth (18.3 ppg, 56% 3PFG) and sophomore point guard Ben Rand (13.0, 60% 3PFG). Rand tallied a career-high 21 points against the Hokies on the strength of 5-for-7 shooting beyond the arc. VMI is shooting 38 percent as a team from 3-point range.
"They have some high-scoring backcourt and wing players who will test our perimeter defense and our transition defense," Smith said.
"We have to play with some real attitude and pride in our defense. We've been doing a pretty good job, but now we've got to start putting it all together where we can create some offense from our defense, force some more turnovers, and then capitalize. We haven't really got many easy baskets in transition."
The Cats are led by Bogans, who is averaging a team-high 17.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Prince (15.3 ppg) and center Marquis Estill (12.8) follow in double figures, but Smith said none of his players have put it all together yet.
"With Marquis scoring the way he's scoring inside, he's a real threat," Smith said. "So when we throw the ball into him, we're going to open up more opportunities for guys on the perimeter like Tayshaun (Prince) and Keith (Bogans). Even though Keith is leading us in scoring and rebounding, he knows he can play better, and we know he can play better. Same way with Tayshaun and the entire squad. I don't think anyone has really played up to their potential, although Marquis probably has the best stats of anyone."
Added Smith: "Now's the time of year when people are starting to understand what their roles are, and how they're going to get their playing time, when their playing time is going to come, and then when they do get that opportunity, to be productive and come out on the positive side."
The VMI game should mark the first appearance for freshman guard Rashaad Carruth, who missed the first four games with a severe ankle injury. The Georgia native is billed as the Cats' best pure shooter.
"He brings that good shooting from the perimeter and a real toughness and a real aggressiveness both at the offensive end and the defensive end that's needed," Smith said. "... His enthusiasm and eagerness and anxiousness to play will be a real positive, I think, to help garner more energy from everybody."
Kentucky is also looking for a greater contribution from its other post players, juniors Marvin Stone (5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Jules Camara (2.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg).
"Because Marquis is playing better, it should motivate them," Smith said.
The 6-11 Camara, who sat out last season but was often hailed as the best player in practice, has struggled to regain the form he displayed late in the 1999-2000 season. He played only two minutes against Kent State.
"I just think it's a matter of rust, getting his timing back and recognizing what he can do," Smith said. "Some guys think they've got to go out and make something happen right away. I just want him to go out and play good, solid basketball, play great defense while he's out there and take care of the basketball.
"He's probably anxious to come in and please and make something happen. But he's had some open shots, some open looks. They just didn't go down early, so what happens is somebody else is playing well."
"I just haven't been able to get in the rhythm or the flow yet," Camara said. "I've had some good shots, but they just haven't fallen for me. But it's going to come. I'm staying confident. I'm staying positive. As long as I work hard and stay positive, things will come for me."
Smith went on to describe what his ideal role for Camara is this season.
"I think he should lead the league in blocked shots. He should be going after every shot. Every time a shot is taken anywhere near the basket, he should give his best effort to try to block, and I haven't seen that," Smith said. "He's also got to utilize his speed and quickness. He's got to take the guys who are guarding him and beat them down the court. We haven't gotten him the ball lots of times when he's getting up and down the court. That goes back to people looking to make the pass up the court. We've been working hard to get more transition baskets, more layups.
"But that's what he can do. I think he should rule and dominate the lane area. If he does that, he'll play a lot."