TIREY: Turning the Tables

The Cats haven't been back to college basketball's hallowed ground since Tubby's first season as head coach, when Kentucky brought the hardware back to the bluegrass. The trip will not be easy. To tell the truth, Duke may have been a better opponent for Kentucky in this Austin regional.

The University of Kentucky Wildcats are one game away from achieving what many thought Tubby Smith had to this season. The Final Four awaits the winner of the Kentucky – Michigan State tilt on Sunday in Austin, Texas. The Cats haven't been back to college basketball's hallowed ground since Tubby's first season as head coach, when Kentucky brought the hardware back to the bluegrass. The trip will not be easy. To tell the truth, Duke may have been a better opponent for Kentucky in this Austin regional. The Spartans are so athletic, and UK's Achilles heel this season has been teams that have had the better athletes: Florida, Kansas, and North Carolina.

The funny thing about this matchup is that it is a complete role reversal from the regional semifinal game Kentucky played on Friday night against Utah. The Cats made it six out of the last fourteen NCAA tournaments that they have knocked Utah out of the tournament. So UK goes from complete series domination in that game, to the exact opposite in a team that has given them trouble in tournament play throughout history. Three out of the last nine times Kentucky has met Michigan State have been in the NCAA tournament. And Michigan State has won two of those. The shoe has been placed on the other foot.

No matter what the situation has been when they have played, though, it always seems Kentucky versus Michigan State is played on a big stage. Last year's game between these two was played before a record attendance of 78,129 at Ford Field in Detroit. UK won that game 79-74. (An interesting side note: UK won that game, but watch Paul Davis for the Spartans closely on Sunday against the Cats. He had a big game on Friday against Duke, and last year torched the Cats for 24 points. He likes to play Kentucky.) What about the last time they met in the NCAA tournament? It was the 1998-1999 season, when the Cats and Spartans were in this very same situation. A berth in the Final Four was on the line, and Michigan State was victorious 73-66, in of all places, St. Louis. The Spartans then bowed out in their next game, losing to Duke.

The problem with this big game is that these two teams are so similar. Chuck Hayes said, "Michigan State is an experienced team with a solid group of veterans. You have two teams that are practically the same. Neither team has that one true superstar or all-American." The Cats will definitely not be able to out last this team like they have other teams this year. Michigan State has just has much depth as Kentucky does. Kelenna Azubuike said of the Spartans, "They like to run the floor. They try to wear you out with their athletic ability." Sound familiar? The Cats employ the same tactics most of the time.

So can the seniors of Kentucky, most notably Chuck Hayes, get to that Final Four that has eluded them? It eluded the seniors last year. But Hayes is dead set against playing his final game on Sunday. "That is definitely my goal," said Hayes, speaking of the Final Four. "If I don't get there, I've had a great career. But you can see were definitely hungry to get to St. Louis." Patrick Sparks thinks he can help get Chuck there. "We want to send them out on a great note," said Sparks. "We got their back on that aspect."


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