Tirey: Former Cat gives first hand report on Utah

Tubby Smith's alma mater, High Point University in North Carolina, has more than the Cats' head man for a connection to the bluegrass state. A couple of years ago, when new head coach Bart Lundy was completing his assistant staff, he turned to a former Kentucky player.

Tubby Smith's alma mater, High Point University in North Carolina, has more than the Cats' head man for a connection to the bluegrass state. A couple of years ago, when new head coach Bart Lundy was completing his assistant staff, he turned to a former Kentucky player. Sean Woods could call himself "coach" for the first time in his life. And the former "Unforgettable" has really found something he enjoys, guiding the lives of young men who love the same game he does…basketball.

The Panthers of High Point coming into this season, were coming off the best season they had ever had as a Division I school. Woods is part of what he says is the third youngest coaching staff in the country. "Last year we took a team and won 19 games," said Woods. "The year before that they had only won six or seven. This year, we were picked first or second in most polls to win [the Big South Conference] or at least challenge for the first place spot and get to the NCAA Tournament, but you know, we had some injuries and some mishaps, and we ended up fourth. We didn't get done what we thought we should have." Woods favorite part of the job is the recruiting, and feels he has found his niche. "I love it," said Woods. "I mean I am in my element. I am back in basketball, something I have done all my life, and also I can communicate and really relate to kids. I think one of my gifts is motivating kids to be the best that they can be."

I was talking to Woods for a reason. His Panthers could provide a valuable service to those who follow the University of Kentucky basketball team. Early in this basketball season, High Point packed up and headed, as Johnny Horton used to sing, "North To Alaska" to participate in the Great Alaska Shootout. And one of the teams High Point squared off against? None other than the Utah Utes, Kentucky's next opponent in the NCAA Tournament. On November 26, 2004, the Panthers hung tough with the Utes, before finally succumbing 78-69. And we went to Woods to give us the scouting report.

Woods starts the scouting report by pulling no punches about the game plan of Utah. "Everything down the court has to go through Andrew Bogut's hands," said Woods, referring to the consensus All-American seven footer on the Utes roster. "He is so good offensively. If you play him one on one, he scores over just about anyone in the country. He creates double teams. And when you double team them, they run an offense which most coaches across the country call a chin series. It's really a high post offense with a lot of cuts. Once he creates a double team, guys like Marc Jackson and people like that…he just finds them. He is a great passer. He's probably the best big man as far as a passer is concerned in the country." So how did his team have success against them in the Alaska tournament? Woods said, "At that particular time, we were playing pretty good and pretty tough. Our big guy, Jerry Echenique, is an undersized post [player], who was about 6'5" or 6'6", but was about 265 pounds. He really went at him [Bogut], really beat him up a little bit, got a chance to put his body on him, and got a chance to shoot some shots over him. Echenique used his size and strength to keep him outside of the paint. We pushed him out a little bit, but they hurt us because we paid more attention to him than others hitting jumpshots."

The obvious choices to carry out that type of duty for the Wildcats would fall to Chuck Hayes and Randolph Morris. Woods feels the more you can play Bogut straight up, man on man, and not double team him, the better your chances against the Utes. "I think they have to be very physical with them. If they can play him straight up, it is a plus in Tubby's book. Whenever you cause a double team with those cutters…I mean those guys can shoot the basketball. I mean they live and die off of the attention he creates and once he causes double teams, they either get layups or back door cuts. Whoever leaves his man to double team, he's sitting wide open. And if they are making those shots, Utah can be very tough."

When UK is on the offensive end of the floor, Woods thinks the Cats should go right at Bogut. "You have to go at him," said Woods. "He's a decent shot blocker, but he's not a great shot blocker. He's not a great defensive player to where he's a big time intimidating factor. I think you need to speed the game up a little bit, go right at him, and don't go away from him. In Tubby's situation, I think you just go right at them. They are not a great defensive team, but they are a great offensive team. They get you…thinking of their offense, more so than your offense."

Kentucky's Achilles' heel this season has been rebounding. But Woods doesn't think that will be a problem for the Cats in this contest. "We out rebounded them. So I don't think Kentucky will have a problem on the rebounding end. I will be very surprised if Utah out rebounds them."

Isn't it ironic that if Kentucky beats Utah, and meets Duke (providing they can get by Michigan State) in the regional final, the former Cat you'll be seeing the most of in the twenty four hours before the game, will be Sean Woods. CBS alone will replay that shot Woods made against the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament, just before Christian Laettner broke hundreds of thousands of bluegrass hearts, about 150 times leading up to that matchup on Sunday. Too bad we can't just stop the tape after Woods connects and pretend that history stops there.

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