Hayes focus on Kansas, not campaign

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Chuck Hayes may never have a better chance to seize the national spotlight.

Kentucky is touting the 6-foot-6 Hayes as an All-America candidate. Without glossy stats to wow voters, the workmanlike Hayes needs to be at his best when the most people can see him - during nationally televised games, like Sunday's showdown between the eighth-ranked Wildcats (10-1) and No. 2 Kansas (10-0).

Hayes did not star in two earlier nationally televised games, a loss to North Carolina and a win over Louisville. While the Wildcats are scheduled to appear on national TV eight more times during the regular season, none of those opponents have the marquee appeal of Sunday's game.

The unassuming Hayes, however, isn't out to impress anyone.

"You can look at it like that," Hayes said. "But, then again, we've got a task at hand. You want to get better every game. Obviously, we need to get better at defense, so that's where my mind-set is at, going into this game."

Hayes is Kentucky's undisputed team leader and embraces the role. The senior forward from Modesto, Calif., is easily the most accessible Kentucky player - he was sick Friday, but still showed up to face the media - and perhaps the most personable.

He is also the Wildcats' most consistent player, with 87 straight starts, 11.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and five double-doubles this season. Kansas coach Bill Self noted Hayes' passing ability, and indeed, Hayes ranks third on the team in assists, with only four fewer than starting point guard Rajon Rondo.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith and teammates continually laud Hayes for doing the little things - like diving for loose balls and playing rugged defense - that don't show up in box scores.

"He's a great player. We appreciate it," junior swingman Kelenna Azubuike said. "We don't care if anybody else does."

Partly in appreciation for Hayes' work ethic, Smith approved the promotion of Hayes as an All-America candidate. Kentucky has distributed notebooks to writers with Hayes' picture and the slogan "All He Does Is Win."

Among current college players who have started at least 70 games, Hayes has the nation's top career winning percentage at .852. Kentucky is 75-13 with Hayes in the starting lineup.

"When I first heard the news (about the campaign), I was excited about it," Hayes said. "Now, I couldn't care less about it. It really doesn't bother me at all."

Without eye-catching numbers, Hayes' only realistic shot at wooing All-America voters is to look good when they're watching, and he hasn't done that this season.

Hayes fouled out of the Wildcats' only loss, 91-78 at North Carolina, with five points and six rebounds. Against Louisville, he scored only six points on 2-of-10 shooting, although Kentucky won 60-58.

Hayes views Sunday's game as a way for his team - not just himself - to erase bad memories from those performances.

"We need it a lot," Hayes said. "I kind of compare this game to the Florida game my sophomore year. Florida was No. 1 and everybody was just hyping it, crazy about it. This time, it's Kansas."

Kentucky routed Florida 70-55 in that game as the Wildcats zoomed through an undefeated Southeastern Conference campaign.

Smith has no doubt that Hayes is an All-American. He also doesn't think Hayes has anything to prove against the Jayhawks.

"Every time Chuck plays, he makes a statement, in my opinion," Smith said. "I don't know what other statement he needs to make, other than he needs to play consistently, which he does every night."

Kansas' standout forward, Wayne Simien, likely will miss the game with a sprained left thumb, for which he underwent surgery Dec. 20. Hayes is disappointed that he won't get to match up with another one of the nation's best at the position, but said he won't approach the game any differently.

"They've got other guys in there who can bang in the paint also, other guys that will make you work," Hayes said. "Whether he's in there or not, they've sure got some quality post players in there."

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