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Monday, March 17, 2003
Yes, UK will go all the way

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Keith Bogans
Keith Bogans and Kentucky will return to New Orleans, where they'll cut down the nets that matter most.

Kentucky's decision to keep the nets at the New Orleans Superdome intact Sunday wasn't a publicity stunt.

This team is determined to return in three weeks to cut down the NCAA's nets, not just ones on loan from the SEC for the tournament last weekend.

The Wildcats have become ESPN.com's pick to win the 2003 national title, but not just because of their undefeated run through the SEC. Although 23 straight wins in arguably the toughest conference is as good a reason as any to like the 'Cats.

No, this team is going to win its eighth national championship because it is as selfless and ego free as any team that has laid claim to a national title chase.

Kentucky simply wants to win as one, rather than think for themselves.

"We've got great leaders," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "We've got guys like Chuck Hayes, Marquis Estill, Eric Daniels, Jules Camara and Keith Bogans. They all wanted to be here for the special moments and are carrying us like veteran players should."

The Wildcats were winning games because of their defense. Kentucky locked up opponents with its trapping sets and frenetic pace when it wants to turn up the pressure in the halfcourt set.

"The size and strength and quickness of their players make them so tough," LSU coach John Brady said. "They cover the perimeter so well and Tubby Smith does a great job of preparing that team every night."

Kentucky is holding teams to 64 points a game, a mere 33.1 percent on 3s, an average 41 percent overall. The 'Cats are also outrebounding teams by nearly six boards a game and picking up almost eight steals a game with a nearly a plus-three turnover margin.

The Wildcats' offense might scare teams just as much. They get out on the break as well as most teams with outlet passes that quickly end in baskets at the opposite end. And, as Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said, they've got "great rhythm."

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That means making the extra pass. When Kentucky doesn't, then it's vulnerable to a score at the other end on a transition bucket, if they don't get back quick enough on 'D'. When the Wildcats show patience and share the ball, they usually find someone open for a bucket.

"We've got multiple weapons and are versatile," Smith said. "That's one reason we've been able to keep our spirits so high is that we have competition in practice. They know that they can earn playing time if they compete in practice and that keeps everyone going."

The balance is amazing with Bogans, Fitch and Estill the only double-figure scorers but Daniels, Hayes, Camara and Cliff Hawkins capable of getting double figures. Any issues with Fitch (disgruntled last season) have been erased. Hawkins seems to relish his sixth-man role after being a starter. And high-profile newcomers -- Kelenna Azubuike and Antwain Barbour -- seem just happy to be on the squad and contribute.

"We harp on the passing aspect of our offense," Smith said. "Our guys enjoy one another and because of that they'll make the extra pass. They like each other enough so they're willing to give up the opportunity to score to someone else."

But they're not so deferential that they would miss scoring chances. Kentucky is a quick- strike team that doesn't let opportunity slide.

"It's always been about getting a teammate a better shot," Estill said. "We're all on the same page and we're in a groove."

"As long as we're concerned about the defensive pressure and intensity then we'll score points," Hawkins said. "The attitude coach (Smith) has brought to the team carries over to the players."

Smith and the 'Cats haven't lost since he changed the focus of the team to defense and simplified the trapping system after losing to Louisville Dec. 28. This team didn't need to lose late to learn a lesson. They will run the table, extend streak to 29 straight wins, and cut down the nets a few victories short of Indiana's undefeated season of 32-0 in 1976.

"We didn't need a loss," Estill said. "We didn't need one to figure out what was wrong. We didn't need anything negative. We're winning and everyone is feeling good."

Kentucky came through one of the two toughest conferences (the SEC is right with the Big 12) to get the top seed in the tournament. The Wildcats have the easiest bracket, even with No. 2 Pittsburgh a possible problem in the regional final. Potentially getting past Arizona won't be easy either at the Final Four. But they're tested and ready for such a game. And anyone else they would face in the final wouldn't be as good as Arizona.

So, get ready for Kentucky to cut down another set of nets -- Smith's second such ceremony in five years.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.



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