Kentucky unfazed by ranking, crowd

Updated: December 16, 2003, 6:29 PM ET
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Chuck Hayes, whose hands seem to find the basketball every time Kentucky absolutely, positively needs it, wants to get his mitts on something else now that history has been made at Ford Field:

"I'm going to go get the Guinness Book of World Records next year," Hayes said with a smile, "and make sure we're in there."

Guinness will record Kentucky's 79-74 victory over Michigan State on Saturday as the most-watched basketball game ever -- and a surprisingly crisp affair, given the cavernous surroundings and thick hype. The good book might also throw in a line about the world-record poise displayed by the Wildcats.

With 78,129 reasons to be tight, Kentucky shot 60 percent from the field.

With 146,258 eyeballs on them, the boys in blue would not blink, making one clutch play after another in the late going.

Gerald Fitch
AP PhotoGerald Fitch and the Wildcats showed the poise of a veteran club against Michigan State.

With about 70,000 fans rooting against them -- more opposition than any basketball team has ever faced -- Kentucky left them very quiet in the end.

Now, after a day of super-sized numbers, the Wildcats will be given a new number: One. Ready or not -- and so far no No. 1 team has been -- Kentucky figures to be on top of Monday's ESPN/USA Today poll.

"We really don't care about it," said Hayes, who had 17 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals. "That's just a number."

Connecticut didn't keep it for long. Neither did Kansas or Florida. Kentucky might not either -- but someone will have to beat the Cats without a lot of help. This team isn't the type to give away anything.

Kentucky might not be the best team in America. It certainly is not the most talented, the kind of squad that brings NBA scouts running to courtside every time it plays. And it's certainly not the most hyped collection of players, lacking a McDonald's All-American on the roster for the first time since 1991-92.

But this team has one thing in common with that team, which came to be known as "The Unforgettables" and played the epic game with Duke in Philadelphia: excellent basketball smarts. That team was led by seniors John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer, and this team has similar senior savvy.

This veteran team -- an anachronism in today's college basketball -- showed its exceptional feel for the game at crunch time Saturday. Four times in the final minutes, the Spartans pulled to within a basket after trailing all game. Four times, Kentucky responded with big plays to retain the lead and remain undefeated.

Tubby Smith's team is now 5-0 for the first time in his seven seasons at Kentucky, and has won 31 of its last 32 dating back to December 2002. Aside from a notable hiccup against Marquette in the regional finals, the roll hasn't really stopped.

With seniors Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins and junior Hayes, these guys know what it takes. Saturday, it took Hayes playing 38 minutes, and Fitch and Hawkins each playing 39. This is not a deep team, but the core of it certainly doesn't rattle easily.

"They're not intimidated by opponents or atmosphere," Smith said of his leaders. "We have experienced guys who understand ... how to raise their intensity when it's called for."

So far this college basketball season, the landscape has been littered with teams fumbling and bumbling their way through end-game situations. There's been an epidemic of bad shots, bad passes and defensive lapses. Understanding time and score -- and executing when time is short and the score is tight -- seems like a lost art.

Then just when you think that nobody knows how to play intelligently, Kentucky comes into a circus setting and shows off its basketball IQ.

The panoramic setting didn't bother them. Neither did the waves of green that rose to the Ford Field rafters. An incredibly deep shooting background never caused a problem. A basketball court that felt like a stage, rising three feet off the Detroit Lions' artificial turf, was not an issue. Neither was a delay at the start of the second half when the lights were slow coming back on after the obligatory halftime laser-light show.

And Michigan State's comeback from a 15-point first-half hole couldn't unnerve the Cats, either.

When State closed to within a point, Fitch drew a foul with one second on the shot clock and made two free throws. When the lead was two in the final minute, the 6-6 Hayes dropped a left-handed jump hook over 6-11 Paul Davis. When it was two again with 22 seconds left, Fitch hit two more free throws.

"They're veterans," Smith said. "They're tested. They've been hardened by the wars they go through."

"It's just experience," Hayes said. "We've got a lot of guys that know what it takes and what they have to do to win."

The wins keep coming for Kentucky, and now that history has been made in Michigan, here comes the unlucky No. 1 ranking. If any team has the maturity and mentality to handle that hot potato for longer than a week, the Wildcats are it.

Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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