SEC coaches expect Cats to bounce back

Despite 0-2 start, league foes don't see UK down for long...

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- In what's shaping up to be a year of uncertainty in the Southeastern Conference, there's one thing the league coaches are counting on:

Two months from now, Kentucky's surprising 0-2 start in conference play will likely be a distant memory.

That was the message Thursday during the league's bi-weekly teleconference as several coaches offered their thoughts on the Wildcats' worst SEC start since the 1978-79 season. Kentucky dropped its opener 74-69 in overtime at Mississippi State (after squandering a 20-point lead), and followed that up by losing 88-84 to Georgia on Wednesday at Rupp Arena.

"It just looks to me like the caliber of play in the SEC is extraordinary this year," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom, whose 10-4 Gamecocks play host to the 9-4 Cats on Saturday in Columbia. "I think Kentucky is every bit as good as advertised. They are just tremendously talented and an extremely well-coached team. The fact that they're 0-2 in the league right now, I think, says more about their opponents than it says about them.

"Instead of having two great teams in the league, it looks like we might have many more than that. Certainly, Georgia's performance last night and Tennessee's performance last night and Arkansas and Mississippi State... all these teams are making the case for themselves to be included in the upper echelon of SEC basketball."

Nine of the league's 12 teams have already won 10 or more games, and several are on the verge of joining Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi State in the Top 25.

Kentucky was the preseason favorite to win both the SEC East and overall championships with Florida a close second in the voting. The Gators have started on the right foot (13-1, 2-0 SEC), but Billy Donovan can relate to Tubby Smith's sense of urgency.

"One thing that I've realized in this league, it's one game at a time, and it's very, very early in the SEC," the Florida coach said. "Last year, we started out 1-3 in the league...There's no doubt that, with 14 games left, there's a lot of basketball left to be played. People are going to be able to rebound from those type of things.

"It's a long, long time before we get to March."

The injury-riddled Gators lost their first three games against SEC East competition last year, falling 69-68 at South Carolina and dropping home games to Georgia (75-72) and Vanderbilt (63-61). But they bounced back to win 11 of their last 12 and tie Kentucky for a share of the conference's regular-season championship.

And Kentucky's not the only high-profile program struggling out of the blocks in conference play. Top 25 teams Michigan State, Virginia and Georgia also started 0-2. Like those squads, most expect the Cats to rise to the challenge.

"Tubby's been in this situation before," Donovan said. "He's certainly a guy with experience. He's a great basketball coach, and they've got good personnel, and I think when it's all said and done, you're going to look back and say Kentucky losing those first two games, if anything, proved to be real good to them. They've got a lot of pride. They'll play very, very well."

Kentucky hasn't lost three straight to open SEC play since the 1975-76 season when it fell to Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee. The Cats lost four straight in 1966-67 en route to the worst record ever (13-13) under legendary coach Adolph Rupp.

A big part of UK's struggles has been the puzzling play of Keith Bogans. The junior guard has been held to single-digit scoring in four of the last six games, hitting only 11 of 37 field goals (29 percent).

Georgia coach Jim Harrick said he believed Bogans' troubles are mostly in his head.

"I really can't put a finger on it," he said. "I watched about five tapes of them, and I've had guys struggle before over the years, and I'm saying what is it. The only thing I can come down to is it's mental. Athletics is four parts mental to one part physical. Most of the guys in this league... on the whole, are pretty equal, so it comes down to how focused you are. And really, the whole thing with teams and players is confidence. It seems to me like he's lost his confidence just a little bit.

"It's just not happening for him right now. But you know he's going to have a breakout game and get it back. I just hope it's not when we play them."

Smith was asked if Bogans' prolonged slump may lead to a lineup change. Freshman guard Rashaad Carruth came off the bench to score 15 points in 20 minutes of action against the Bulldogs.

"That's a fine line, that situation," he said. "He's really been struggling, but he worked hard last night. He's been giving us some effort areas; he took a charge last night.

"When his shot is not falling and you make some turnovers and decisions the way he did, it can kind of mess with your psyche. It also forces me to have to look and say, 'Is this why you're doing this, because you're mentally out of the game because you're not scoring?' So I have to evaluate if he's doing all the other things."

Despite all the question marks, no one's chomping at the bit to play these Cats.

"I don't know that there's ever a good time to play Kentucky," Odom said.

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