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Published: Saturday, 3/20/2004

Mighty Kentucky has point to prove

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - For the second year in a row, top-seeded Kentucky is considered the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament.

And why not?

The Wildcats have won 52 of their last 57 games, including a season-high nine in a row, entering tonight s first-round match-up against No. 16 seed Florida A&M at Nationwide Arena.

However, the pain of last year s season-ending loss to Marquette in the Elite Eight still gnaws at Kentucky s players.

The second-ranked Wildcats (26-4) don t want to slip up again.

“We always think about last year and the way it ended,” senior guard Gerald Fitch said. “Hopefully, we can go further this time.”

A year ago, Kentucky was the nation s No. 1 team and riding a 26-game winning streak. But things fell apart quickly after All-American Keith Bogans sprained his ankle in the Wildcats Sweet 16 victory over Wisconsin.

Bogans was hobbled against Marquette and couldn t guard its All-American player, Dwayne Wade, who put up a triple-double, with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.

And, just like that, the Wildcats winning streak was gone, and so were they, victims of an 83-69 setback in the Midwest Regional final.

“Last year, I feel we were one of the better teams,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “But we weren t the best on that day. Marquette was.”

Smith said he hasn t specifically mentioned the Marquette loss to his players, but they mention it often in interviews.

“In their minds, the last game is usually what sticks with you,” Smith said. “There are a lot of teams running around that started the year being motivated by what they didn t finish last year, I would guess. The teams that made it to the Final Four [last year] were probably pleased with where they were.

“We knew we had unfinished business. I think the most inspiring part about it is you have another chance to improve as a player and as a person.”

Kentucky, which captured its 25th Southeastern Conference Tournament title last weekend, has won its last nine games by an average of 15.9 points. And the Wildcats have won 12 of their last 13 games overall.

“We re dangerous, experienced, and, right now, confident,” junior forward Chuck Hayes said. “It ain t cocky, it s confidence. We don t have losing in our vocabulary. We ve got no excuses if we don t make it.”

The Wildcats have their sights set on the Final Four.

“Ultimately, we want to get to San Antonio and cut those nets down,” senior forward Erik Daniels said. “We re a much more experienced group. We ve got five seniors on this team. We have a great shot to win it.”

Kentucky is seeded No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time, more than any other school. Still, only one of the Wildcats seven national titles have come as a top seed, although they did win their last national championship in 1998 in a tournament that also ended in San Antonio.

The last time Kentucky played an NCAA Tournament game in Columbus was in 1970, when they lost to Artis Gilmore-led Jacksonville in the Mideast Regional in St. John Arena.

“We re very happy and excited about being a No. 1 seed,” Smith said. “I m proud of this group and what they ve been able to achieve throughout the season. They ve shown their competitive grit and moxie all year long - a never-quit, never-say-die attitude. That s what has pulled us through.”

The Wildcats have had a different star almost every game.

Fitch, who scored 57 points in the SEC Tournament and was named MVP, is one of five Wildcats averaging in double figures with a 15.8 average. Daniels is next at 14.5. Point guard Cliff Hawkins has a team-leading 160 assists while averaging 10.2 points.

“We re moving the ball better, we re executing, we re playing unselfish as a team,” Daniels said. “And it s showing.”

Kentucky, which is in the St. Louis Regional, travels well, so Nationwide Arena may look more like Rupp Arena.

“Columbus is only a three-hour drive from Lexington, so we should have a lot of fans,” Smith said. “I don t want to look past Columbus, but we ve always drawn well in St. Louis, so hopefully we can do what we need to do in order to get to that site.”

Smith believes several things have to happen for Kentucky to have a long postseason run.

“We must have good leadership, and we have that,” he said. “We ve got enthusiastic guys who enjoy playing together and enjoy each other. We have guys that are very unselfish. We re a very tough-minded team; we re tough physically and tough mentally.

“We understand we re not going to get too high, and we re not going to get too low. We need to keep balance throughout the game and handle the exposure, the media, the lights, and the hype.”

Contact Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.



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