Bolting from a chair in his well-appointed office, Tubby Smith
is suddenly staring you in the face, his posture--knees bent,
hands out, eyes wide--suggesting more than a hint of menace.
Granted, defensive stances are nothing new for the Kentucky
coach, who was hearing calls for his head as recently as New
Year's, when an 18-point loss to that !@#$% turncoat,
Louisville's Rick Pitino, still had rabid Cats fans frothing.
But this posture is different. Smith is merely reenacting one of
the lasting images of the college hoops season, a scene the
commonwealth faithful credit with turning the Wildcats from
chronic underachievers into perhaps the most feared team in the
land. ¬∂ On Jan. 14, his team down by 14 at Vanderbilt, Smith
stood on the far baseline of the Memorial Gym stage--home of the
funky configuration that seats teams behind the baskets--and
shifted into his defensive crouch, exhorting his players with
the manic intensity of a cheerleader on speed. "It was an eerie
feeling, almost like I was playing," says Smith, still guarding
his imaginary foe. "They couldn't hear me from the other end,
but they could see their coach going berserk. Hell, I was
desperate!" ¬∂ In the running psychodrama that is Bluegrass
Basketball (Hail Pitino! Fire Tubby! Wait, save Tubby before the
NBA takes him!), Smith's outburst was the opening salvo in the
latest installment, Episode XXVI: Tubby's Revenge. Drawing
energy from their coach, the Wildcats outscored Vandy 46--16 in
the second half that night to win 74--52 and ignite a remarkable
midseason transformation. After Sunday's 74--66 victory at No.
21 Georgia, in which Kentucky broke a late tie by forcing
turnovers on three straight possessions, the Wildcats were
24--3, 14--0 in the SEC and ranked second nationally. Heading
into a March 5 meeting at Rupp Arena with last-place Vanderbilt
and a tough road game this Saturday against No. 3 Florida,
Kentucky was riding an 18-game winning streak, the school's
longest since 1995--96. What's more, just when it seemed Pitino
had gained the upper hand, engineering his own 17game streak,
Louisville had dropped four of its last six (much to the delight
of Lexingtonians still bitter over Pitino's traitorous return to
their archrival a year ago.)
So dominant is the Wildcats' defense these days that it's drawing
comparisons to such throwbacks as Temple's 2--3 match-up zone,
UNLV's amoeba and Arkansas's Forty Minutes of Hell. Rival coaches
are even using videotapes of Kentucky games as teaching tools. "I
told my players, 'Does it look like they have six guys out there?
It sure looks that way to me,'" says coach John Calipari of
resurgent Memphis. "So we stopped and counted, and they only had
five. Are they the most talented team in the country? It doesn't
matter. To win a national title, you have to play great defense
and rebound the ball. That's why they're the best team in the
Not even Smith believes his team is the nation's most skilled
outfit, calling his Wildcats "average players doing extraordinary
things right now." Though Kentucky may not possess a single NBA
first-round pick--seniors Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill and Jules
Camara are borderline prospects--a growing number of observers
think these Wildcats are superior to No. 1 Arizona's. "I'd prefer
Kentucky if they went head-to-head," said LSU's John Brady (who
has faced both teams this season), citing Kentucky's commitment
on the defensive end.
For further evidence that ability isn't everything, one need only
look at last year's Kentucky squad, which Smith called the most
talented of his then 11-year career before the team imploded amid
infighting and suspensions. Four players eventually departed from
Team Turmoil, which turned in the Wildcats' third straight season
of double-digit losses, a Kentucky first. "The experience that
guys had last year makes this like a rebirth," says Smith, who
has drawn insight from his latest reading material, Pat Conroy's
My Losing Season. "They didn't want to go through that again."
For a while it appeared that they might. The Wildcats stumbled
early against Virginia and Michigan State, big-conference
opponents on their way to mediocre years. Soon thereafter came
the crushing defeat at Louisville, in which Kentucky squandered
an 11-point first-half lead in losing 81--63. ("It was almost
like somebody drank something," Smith says of the collapse.)
Suddenly the sky was falling again in Lexington, judging from its
notoriously hysterical talk-radio shows. "People got down on us,"
says Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes. "Our heart wasn't in that
game, and the fans saw that. After that game, everyone
recommitted themselves to the team."
More to the point, Smith went back to basics on defense. As
recently as Jan. 2, the Wildcats were on pace to set a school
record for worst three-point-shooting defense (38.8%) and were
allowing foes to shoot 44.9% overall, which would have been
Kentucky's poorest mark in 11 years. "We were terrible," Smith
says. "I told them this was the worst defensive team I've ever
coached." Partly to blame, he says, was his own time-consuming
attempt to install a new, more complicated offense blending the
flex and Princeton schemes. Once that was aborted in late
December, Bogans says, "we started going over defensive
principles again, walking through everything like it was the
first day of practice." The approach worked. Since the watershed
win at Vandy, the Misercats had held opponents to 40.2% shooting
and just 60.5 points and 12 offensive rebounds per game through
Mixing a devastating half-court man-to-man with a 2--3 zone (off
inbounds plays) and an occasional zone press, Kentucky emphasizes
communication, quickness and intelligence to challenge every
shot--if a foe can get one off. The defense requires agile,
quick-to-help forwards (Hayes and Erik Daniels) as well as
shot-blocking big men (6'9" Estill and 6'11" Camara) whose safety
net allows the guards (Bogans, Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins) to
extend their pressure, sometimes to half-court.
"It's not much of a gambling defense," says Hayes. "We just like
for the tempo of the game to be in our hands. If we want to slow
you down, we'll go to an extended zone press. If we just want to
make life tough for you when you get past half-court, we'll go
into our man-to-man and try to deny you the ball. We don't want
to play at anyone else's pace." Just ask poor Florida, which took
a No. 1 ranking into Rupp on Feb. 4, only to shoot 6 for 30 in
the first half of a 70--55 drubbing.
After that game C.M. Newton, the retired former Alabama coach and
Kentucky athletic director, sent Smith an e-mail saying he had
never seen an elite team dominated so completely. When in May
1997 Newton chose Smith, who then held the head job at Georgia,
to replace Pitino (who was leaving for the Boston Celtics) and
become Kentucky's first African-American coach, he did so in part
because he knew Smith could coach Pitino's players. Smith led
Kentucky to its seventh national title in '98. "Aside from being
a tremendous basketball coach, Tubby's the most human of human
beings," Newton says. "If there's anything you could be critical
of Tubby for, it may be for going too far with some players. He
thinks of himself as a surrogate father for those kids."
Smith takes much of the blame for last year's problems, saying
his tour as a 2000 Olympic assistant kept him from spending
enough time getting to know his recruits and their families.
"Kentucky isn't for everybody," he says. "It can inflate you to
the point where you think you're indestructible. Then you find
out you're not, and that's a real bummer. You've got to pick up
No Wildcats better justify Smith's approach than Kentucky's two
top scorers, Bogans (16.2 points per game through Sunday) and
Fitch (12.3). After averaging 17.0 points to lead the team as a
sophomore, Bogans self-destructed last season, dropping to 11.6
as he misfired time and again from the outside in a misguided
attempt to impress pro scouts. This year Bogans has returned to
being the slasher of old while serving as the team's undisputed
leader. "When I didn't score, people said I couldn't play the
game anymore," Bogans says. "This year Coach said to put the team
first, and I told him I'd do whatever it took."
Fitch, a junior, was nearly out of strikes at the end of last
season after a curfew violation earned him a benching in the SEC
tournament opener against South Carolina. (It was the third
disciplinary action of the year against him.) Recognizing that
Fitch had endured a turbulent home life in Macon, Ga.--his older
brother and father figure, George, was shot and killed in
1998--Smith reluctantly allowed him back on the team. "I
basically owe Coach Smith my life," says Fitch, a silky-smooth
shooter. "When somebody gives you that second chance, there's no
way you're going to mess that up."
Yet even as Smith is embraced by his players and the vast
majority of Wildcats fans, he knows that he's one bad loss away
from another dose of venom from the radio and Internet vipers.
"That started the day he was hired," Newton says wearily.
"Unfortunately in this world, there's still racism. Some people
are still colored by color." It's enough to make ardent
Smith-watchers wonder if, in the still-to-be-written climax of
Tubby's Revenge, their hero might ride Kentucky's resurgence all
the way to the NBA. They point out that Smith will have no family
reasons to stay in Lexington now that his youngest son, Brian, is
finishing his senior year as a point guard at Lexington Catholic
High and is drawing attention from such schools as Dayton,
Evansville, Iona and Ole Miss. (Don't look for Brian to follow
his brother Saul, a Wildcats guard from 1998 to 2001, to
Kentucky. "I wouldn't want him to go through that," Saul says of
his up-and-down history with the fans in Lexington.)
The man himself remains coy about his next move. "I've learned
from Rick Pitino: Never say never," says Smith, who earns $1.5
million a year at Kentucky. "I feel like I can coach anywhere,
but I also have a commitment to the young men in our program. I
don't plan on being anywhere but Kentucky in the future."
Perhaps. Smith already turned down an offer from the Washington
Wizards in 2000. But as Saul says, "I'm pretty sure he'd take a
look at [the NBA]. The first thing he told me after the Olympics
was, 'Saul, you wouldn't believe what these guys can do. Everyone
may say they're prima donnas, but I'm amazed at their athleticism
and passion for the game.'"
Raised on a Maryland farm, the 51-year-old Smith is having a hard
enough time figuring out where he and his wife, Donna, will
retire someday. "She's a city girl from Richmond, and I'm a
country boy," he says. "We're one of those Green Acres--type
couples." Truth is, with its lovely horse farms and ascendant
basketball team, Lexington seems far more suitable for Smith
right now than some NBA metropolis. And Kentucky's coach should
hardly feel defensive about that.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER [COVER] Kentucky Comes On Strong Wildcats guard Cliff Hawkins
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO SLASH FROM THE PAST No longer bombing away erratically, Bogans is again attacking the basket--and leading the team.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO STARE DOWN Smith resorted to sideline histrionics to get his team's attention.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER DEPTH CHARGER High-energy guards such as Hawkins allow Smith to keep the pressure on foes for 40 minutes.
Read Grant Wahl's college basketball Mailbag at
"Do they have six guys out there?" says Memphis's Calipari. "It
sure looks that way to me."