Smith says this Kentucky team could be better

Updated: October 23, 2003, 8:07 PM ET
ESPN

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- All Kentucky did last season was win 26 straight games, go unbeaten in the Southeastern Conference and come within a game of the Final Four.

All that led to Tubby Smith being the consensus national coach of the year.

Smith says this season's team could be better than the 2002-03 version.

"I think we build on that," Smith said Thursday at the team's media day. "I think the momentum is still there. I think the characteristics, the teamwork that it took to do what that team did last year, those ingredients are still within this team. They are very capable of being as good or better than last year's team.

"That doesn't mean that we're going to win any more games or we're going to do what we did last year, but I think we have that potential."

Kentucky lost three key players off last season's 32-4 squad: guard Keith Bogans (a third-team All-America selection who finished fourth on the school's career scoring list), forward Jules Camara and center Marquis Estill.

"You lose a lot of experience in those guys, about 12 to 15 years of experience in those three kids," Smith said. "But we know we have to move on without them, and I think we're on the right path now and we have the right people in the right place on the team. It's a matter of finding their role and defining their roles as far as what they will be able to contribute to this team."

Losing the 6-foot-11 Camara and the 6-9 Estill left a hole in the Wildcats' front line, one Smith hopes two freshmen can fill. At 7-3, Shagari Alleyne is the tallest player in Kentucky history, and Lukasz Obrzut of Poland isn't far behind at 7-1.

"I think they both will play a lot and there will be opportunities for them to play," Smith said. "But then again, there will be times when they probably won't play, because we'll go with a quicker team, possibly."

Senior Gerald Fitch, one of three returning starters, reached the final tryouts for the U.S. Pan Am Games team in July before reaggravating a hernia. He said he's completely healed from surgery.

Another senior, point guard Cliff Hawkins, last season's sixth man, and swingmen Antwain Barbour and Kelenna Azubuike, among others, were mentioned by Smith as capable of filling the scoring void.

Junior forward Chuck Hayes did make the U.S. Pan Am team and figures to see his 8.6 scoring average from last season increase. Senior forward Erik Daniels, a returning starter who stands 6-8, has bulked up to 214 pounds "and has probably improved as much as anybody," Smith said.

Smith said the Wildcats' schedule "is probably the toughest we've ever played here." The non-conference schedule includes games against UCLA in Anaheim, Calif.; Michigan State in Detroit and Indiana in Indianapolis, as well as home contests against Louisville and North Carolina.

"Then you throw in the SEC, which is going to be very balanced this year," Smith said. "There won't be much difference between the top teams and the lower-tier teams."

Kentucky went 19-0 against SEC teams last season and won its first three NCAA tournament games before losing 83-69 to Marquette in the Midwest Region final. Hayes said that loss will motivate this season's players.

"We realize that we were so close last year to getting to where we wanted to be," Hayes said. "That's why we want to get going. Last year, we got off to a slow start, then we picked it up. This year, we want to be confident throughout the whole year."

Smith said Barbour, who was cited for marijuana possession during a Franklin County traffic stop in June, will miss the team's two exhibition games and the regular season opener Nov. 21 against Winthrop. Barbour had the charge dropped in August. Barbour did not attend media day because of a class conflict, athletic department spokesman Scott Stricklin said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index