Kentucky gearing up for deep tourney run
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Tubby Smith walks by the banners every day at Memorial Coliseum to get to his office. He sees them when he's conducting practice on the court.
They hang from the rafters as a constant reminder that the SEC title does mean something here. The Wildcats are expected to win it on the way toward another annual goal -- the Final Four.
They don't hang NCAA first or second-round appearance banners in Rupp Arena. They hang only Final Four and championship banners.
This is Kentucky.
"You see the 42 SEC championship banners at Memorial Coliseum and the pressure to win that conference championship is here every day," Smith said Friday on the eve of hosting Mississippi State Saturday night. "It's embedded. It's in writing. It's in the locker room."
That's why Smith had to remind his team after losing to South Carolina last Tuesday in Columbia that they weren't focused enough. He reinstituted a 6 a.m. shooting practice Thursday for the first time since December to ensure the freshmen understood that the Wildcats expect to play deep into March and early April. He wanted to make sure they understood the work ethic needed to be checked as they hit the stretch run.
One loss was all it took to get their attention. Kentucky dispatched Mississippi State 94-78 Saturday night to climb to 20-3 overall, 11-1 in the SEC, setting up a potential showdown for the overall SEC regular-season title when the Wildcats go to Alabama (10-2 in the SEC East) next Saturday. Kentucky hosts Auburn first and the Tide go to LSU before the showdown.
Regardless of the outcome in Baton Rouge, expect the Tide to be as pumped to play Kentucky as any game this season.
"When you're the hunted, it's like being the King of the Mountain when you're a kid and you have to take on all comers," Smith said. "If you like being up there, you have to fight, claw and scratch to maintain your level or position in the hierarchy. That's what happens to Kentucky wherever we go."
Smith compared Kentucky to being the Yankees where everyone wants to knock them off. He understands the venom toward the Wildcats. Prior to his stint in Lexington, he thought, "they got every call." But now that he's here he realizes "how tough it is to compete with the same level of intensity."
The pressure of being the team to beat every night can be draining, although the Wildcats seemed to relish it Saturday night against the Bulldogs.
"You do feel above everybody else at times but they come at you and it's always like David and Goliath and sometimes I don't like being Goliath," Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes said.
But Hayes has seen the intimidation of the Big Blue Nation work wonders on opponents, even before tipoff.
"We've won some games before it's even started because we have Kentucky on our chest, and because of the tradition, and the loyal fans we bring to the game," Hayes said.
Mississippi State wasn't intimidated in the first half, drawing to within three at the break. But the Bulldogs were over run in the second, watching Kentucky go out to a 10-0 run to start the second half. They couldn't recover and got rolled the rest of the game.
The Wildcats were a selfless team dishing out 19 assists on 33 field goals, scoring 29 points off turnovers as well as converting 14-fast-break points. Freshman point guard Rajon Rondo was sensational with eight steals, two assists, no turnovers and 11 points in 20 minutes.
"He's got a mature basketball IQ, he anticipates the ball real well," Smith said of Rondo. "He's phenomenal and can really turn the heat up defensively."
Freshman center Randolph Morris scored 17 points and grabbed six boards in 19 minutes, putting on the kind of performance that was, perhaps, unfairly expected of the hyped center.
"Randolph set the tone for us in the first half," Hayes said of Morris' 12 first-half points. "He demanded the ball. The second half was myself [10 of 12 points in the second half], Patrick Sparks [11 of 14 in the second half] and Rondo."
The Wildcats' focus was an about-face from the previous week after a squeaker over Georgia by nine and then the 11-point loss in South Carolina.
So, which Kentucky team will move forward?
Well, Hayes said the Wildcats played with a purpose, a sense of urgency and intensity. That has to translate on the road at Alabama and Florida and in Atlanta in the SEC tournament and into the NCAA Tournament.
Can it? Sure. The Wildcats relish this role of being the hunted. They just have to be reminded every once in a while.
"It was an effective loss," Kentucky's Ravi Moss said of the South Carolina game. "It got our attention and told us we had to be more serious on the basketball court."
Remember, there are banners to hang, but only championship ones.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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