Finding new life, 'Cats milk moment

Kentucky's season on sour side before climb to Sweet 16

College Basketball

March 20, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Kentucky basketball fans are often an emotional barometer for their team, so when most of the tickets for last week's NCAA men's tournament games in St. Louis were returned to officials running the sub-regional site, it seemed telling of how the Wildcats had been playing.

"We've got the greatest fans in America," said junior guard Keith Bogans. "They have a lot of expectations for us to live up to. When we don't, they have a problem. And we should, too."

But the fans who follow a team like some religious cult are also fickle. It took one impressive outing against Valparaiso in the opening round to get most of the faithful back in the fold. It took a down-to-the-wire thriller over Tulsa for the rest to forget what a long, strange winter it had been in Lexington.

The Big Blue Nation - as Wildcats fans like to call themselves - will certainly show up en masse at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., when fourth-seeded Kentucky (22-9) takes on top-seeded Maryland (28-4) on Friday in the regional semifinals.

But will the Wildcats?

That's been an ongoing debate as a team picked by many to be among the best in the country slogged through an up-and-down regular season that was one of the most tumultuous in school history. "Has it been my toughest year?" Kentucky coach Tubby Smith asked rhetorically last week. "It probably has."

After losing the season opener to Western Kentucky, the Wildcats teased their fans by nearly beating Duke in December, then won at Florida in January before finishing by losing at Vanderbilt and getting knocked out of the Southeastern Conference tournament in the quarterfinals by South Carolina.

That was only a small part of this roller coaster ride.

Marvin Stone, who started the season at power forward, quit the team in late December. Gerald Fitch, a starting guard, got into a fight on a plane with teammate Cory Sears, was suspended for using a fake ID to get into a bar and was later benched against South Carolina for missing curfew.

"With each incident and infraction we've had, we've been able to recover and respond in a positive way," said Smith, who wound up suspending five players a total of 11 games. "We're almost at the end. Hopefully, we don't have another."

Said senior forward Tayshaun Prince, one of the team's co-captains, "We have talked to [the younger players] about how important it is to get things done and avoid distractions. We can't have this now."

And then there was Bogans.

Or, more accurately, was that really the same player who came to Kentucky as a McDonald's All-American from DeMatha two years ago and led the team in scoring 26 times as a sophomore? Bogans struggled with his shot, his confidence and, at times, with Smith.

Bogans said that a lack of confidence, or his relationship with Smith, wasn't a problem.

"My confidence, it can't really suffer because I've got too much confidence," Bogans said last week. "My teammates and coaches told me to keep my head up; Coach never let me get down on myself. If it wasn't for them, I really would have been down in a hole somewhere, but I've got a coach who has stayed positive no matter what."

But Smith saw things differently.

"It's probably the toughest thing he's had to go through in his life," Smith told the Lexington Herald-Leader in January. "I know how I'd feel. I'd feel miserable."

Bogans showed up last week at the Edward Jones Dome still mired in a terrible shooting slump, having made just two of his previous 24 three-point shots over six games and 10 of 46 over his previous 10, a stretch in which he averaged 7.4 points.

Only days after Smith told all his players to approach the NCAA tournament with what Prince called "a clean slate," Bogans led the Wildcats with 21 points against Valparaiso, then scored 19 in the second-round victory over Tulsa in which Prince burst for a career-high 41.

"I started by coming into this NCAA tournament by attacking the basket first," said Bogans, who had averaged 17.0 points last season. "Once I get to the basket in the lane, I can make things happen."

Bogans was the most obvious scapegoat for the fans, because he and Prince are considered the two stars of the team. Each had tested their market value in the NBA last spring by attending pre-draft camps, but returned to Lexington when they realized they weren't as highly regarded as they initially thought.

Prince had been more consistent this season, but certainly not dominant until his career night against Tulsa. The Wildcats will need Prince to step up again to advance to their first Elite Eight since his freshman year.

Maryland coach Gary Williams is well aware of Bogans and Prince, having coached against Kentucky twice in a 17-day span early in the 1999-2000 season. And he is aware of how schizophrenic this year's Wildcats have been despite starting the season ranked fourth and finishing No. 16.

What stands out for the Terrapins is Kentucky's overtime loss to Duke in the Jimmy V Classic, a game in which the Wildcats led by as many as 12 points in the second half.

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