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Kentucky's talent runs deep

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Wildcats live up to No. 1 seed as Wisconsin looms

By Mark Stewart

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON, Wis.

The talented, deep Kentucky Wildcats left Ohio coach Tim O'Shea wondering aloud whether their second unit wouldn't make for a good team in its own right.

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Tennessee forward Ron Slay, whose team lost to the Wildcats by 80-68 last month, said even when Kentucky makes mistakes, it looks as if it's doing something right.

The favorite to win it all? Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wouldn't dare put the pressure on Wildcats coach Tubby Smith but admitted that Kentucky "can overwhelm a lot of people."

Not only do the Wisconsin Badgers (24-7) face the No. 1 team in the country when they play Kentucky at 6:10 p.m. Thursday in Minneapolis in the Midwest Regional semifinal, they're going up against the Wildcats' mystique.

"Kentucky's the team to beat," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said after losing to the Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game March 16. "They're going to be back here in New Orleans (for the Final Four). The question is: Who's going to be the other three teams with them?"

That's heavy praise. All of it well deserved.

The Wildcats (31-3) have won 25 consecutive games and became the third team since 1954 to go through the SEC undefeated. During its winning streak, the Wildcats have won games by an average of 17.3 points and have held opponents to 40 percent shooting.

In the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky won by an average of 25.5 points per game.

"We still have four games to go," junior guard Gerald Fitch said Sunday after the Wildcats' 74-54 victory over Utah. "We don't have any reason to be happy yet."

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The Wildcats have come a long way since closing out 2002 with two losses in three games. One of those was an unforgivable 18-point loss to state rival Louisville, led by former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. That stretch left the Wildcats at 6-3 and dropped them to No. 20 in the writers' poll and No. 21 in the coaches' poll.ka-0

Then everything changed. It started with the defense.

"What makes Kentucky good is defense," said O'Shea, whose team lost to Kentucky and Wisconsin this season. "They're so tough as a unit, to the point they can have a bad night and still win. As a neutral observer, I'd say Wisconsin would be worried about tempo and shooting percentage. You can't shoot 30 percent and beat them."

As much as the team has bought into Smith's teachings, it has also been helped by the return of some key players.

Junior guard Cliff Hawkins missed the first seven games under academic suspension. Junior forward Erik Daniels was suspended for the first four games of the season for playing in an unauthorized summer league. Junior guard-forward Antwain Barbour missed five games in December with a broken left hand.

With that trio back on the court, the Wildcats have it all. Seniors Marquis Estill and Jules Camara are shot-blockers. Daniels and sophomore Chuck Hayes are active, athletic forwards. Fitch and senior Keith Bogans, the SEC's player of the year, are big guards.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is impressed.

"They have exactly what you would put together if you were putting together a defense," he said.

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The defense is so good that it overshadows a more-than-adequate offense.

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