Kentucky pressure doesn't trap Smith

College basketball: Despite intense scrutiny and his team's slow start, coach Tubby Smith has led No. 2 Kentucky to a 24-3 record and an 18-game winning streak, longest in the nation.

College Basketball

March 04, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The call-in shows around this basketball-crazy state are filled with verbal bouquets these days for Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. The chat rooms on various Web sites devoted to the region's most popular religion - Wildcats basketball - are again a destination for hero worship, not harangue.

How quickly the climate has changed.

In a little more than two months, Smith has gone from being the scapegoat in his team's disappointing start to a front-running Coach of the Year candidate. In the process, Kentucky has reeled off 18 straight victories while rocketing to No. 2 in the rankings.

Even all the hysteria surrounding Smith's predecessor, Rick Pitino, at Louisville has faded amid the Cardinals' recent struggles. The rockiest marriage in college basketball, the one between Smith and the insatiable Kentucky fans, has found some sort of reconciliation.

But a 24-3 record that includes 14-0 in the Southeastern Conference - the Wildcats could become only the third team in league history to finish unbeaten if they win at home tomorrow against Vanderbilt and at Florida on Saturday - doesn't defuse the scrutiny Smith is still under.

"Even if Pitino wasn't in Louisville, the expectations being the coach here are really high enough," sophomore forward Chuck Hayes said last week. "That just put more pressure on him [Smith] to win.

"When they beat us earlier in the year, and jumped ahead of us [in the national rankings], there were a lot of people on Coach. He's always going to have fingers pointing at him and pressure on him."

It didn't seem to matter that Smith coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1997-98, his first season in Lexington following Pitino. Nor did it matter that the Wildcats have been more than respectable since, reaching the Elite Eight once and the Sweet 16 three times while averaging better than 24 wins a season.

Smith took all kinds of heat for starting his son Saul at point guard during two of those seasons. Some also questioned whether Smith had lost control of a program from which players left school at a dizzying rate.

But it was Pitino's arrival last season less than 80 miles up the road that heaped even more pressure on Smith's already weighted shoulders. And it was Louisville's 18-point victory over Kentucky in their Dec. 28 game at Freedom Hall that enflamed his critics again.

Not that the landscape has changed much since Smith took over at Kentucky.

"It doesn't matter if Adolph Rupp comes alive and goes to Louisville, the pressure would be there," Smith said Wednesday night after the Wildcats had dispatched Tennessee at Rupp Arena. "It was the same when Denny Crum was there. The pressure is here. It's from within, not from outside."

It might not be the same for Smith following Pitino as it was for Joe B. Hall succeeding the legendary Rupp, but it's close. Hall won a national championship in 1978, but is also remembered for his team's horrid shooting in a NCAA tournament semifinal loss to Georgetown in 1984. Hall retired the next season.

Kentucky fans have not fully embraced Smith, partly because his off-court personality is bland compared with that of the smooth-talking Pitino. Smith's polite demeanor is not a faM-gade, but the intensity he shows during games is more a true reflection of his professional drive.

"I'm very mild-mannered, but when I'm threatened, you have to be ready to fight and react the proper way when you're challenged," said Smith, 51. "That's part of sports. When you're competing ... you do what you have to do to survive. That's the part of the thing I learned growing up."

Smith also learned something else growing up as one of 17 children in the Southern Maryland town of Scotland.

"You learn how to overcome," he said. "I always talk about being able to last. It's that longevity. It's not that you're doing anything extraordinary. You have the will and the staying power. That takes a lot more than the quick fix.

"Sometimes you get in [tough] situations. That's what I mean by sustaining your focus and not panicking. You've got to work through it, work with people, work with kids, then at the end of the day, it's like any job, if you see things are not working, you've got to make a change."

The changes Smith made last year by hastening the departure of highly touted players Jason Parker and Rashaad Carruth, during and after Smith's most tumultuous season as a head coach, have helped make this year's team one of the most cohesive during his six years at Kentucky.

Not that this season looked any better starting off.

In fact, things appeared even worse when the Wildcats barely won their first exhibition game and then lost their second, a smattering of boos following them off the court after they were beaten by Team Nike. The loss to Louisville set off another round of "Tubby must go" talk-show tirades.

Smith said he is oblivious to all the bluegrass blather.

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