- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

Near the conclusion of Kentucky's second-round NCAA tournament victory against Tulsa on Saturday, Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans shared a bear hug in celebration of their impending trip to the Sweet 16, where they face top-seeded Maryland in tomorrow's East Region semifinal in Syracuse, N.Y.
The joy resulted from the outstanding performances by both. Prince had scored a career-high 41 points and Bogans had added 19, giving him a combined 40 in the first two rounds of the NCAAs his best two-game total in nearly four months.
Maybe the embrace was as much an expression of relief as it was celebration. Though Kentucky has college basketball's all-time winningest program, this season has been anything but legendary.
It has included a host of distractions, some more likely to occur on a petulant and undisciplined high school team. Just before the season started, Jason Parker, the team's third-leading scorer from last season, suffered his second major knee injury in four months and was lost for the season. Beginning in late December, senior guard J.P. Blevins missed 10 games with a wrist injury. In January, center Marvin Stone transferred to in-state rival Louisville.
In late February, sophomores Gerald Fitch and Cory Sears tussled on the team charter, resulting in one-game suspensions for each. Two days later, Fitch and sophomore forward Erik Daniels were suspended two games for trying to pass fake IDs at a nightclub. Fitch hardly the model of self-control, obviously was also suspended for the Wildcats' only game in the SEC tournament, a quarterfinal loss to South Carolina, for missing curfew.
These incidents led the media that covers Kentucky to label it "Team Turmoil," among similar nicknames. There's little doubt it has been a contentious season, but winning last weekend has proven a potent antidote.
"Since guys are playing up to their capability, that's why you're seeing a better attitude and the positive state of mind," Prince said.
Said Maryland's Steve Blake: "They've had their ups and downs, kind of like we had last year. But they're playing well now that's all that matters."
In mid-January, coach Tubby Smith laced up his sneakers and practiced with the team to try to make players work harder on defense. Some players have also griped about their playing time. In recent days, Smith has taken responsibility for the distractions, saying that he had been too hard on his players.
"We needed something positive, and I thought it should start with me," said Smith, who owns a 20-7 record in the NCAA tournament. "[The off-court incidents] were more distracting to me than the players. I needed to refrain from allowing that stuff to change my personality. That's why you see me clapping and encouraging more. It's hard, believe me."
Prince has made things easier. The versatile senior forward from Compton, Calif., played at power forward for much of last season but now primarily plays small forward. Smith said that limits opponents' ability to double-team Prince, who can score from the outside as well as off the dribble-drive and sets teammates up well.
"It's left up to me to get the team going in the right way," said Prince, who averages 17.5 points and 6.4 rebounds. "I have to make sure I get everybody going. It will be imperative for me to get the job done."
Last season Prince scored a then-career-high 31 points in a second-round NCAA tournament game against Iowa, then was held to just six on eight field-goal attempts in a loss to Southern Cal in the regional semifinal. But Smith said Prince's defense is as important to the Wildcats as his offense.
"We flow a lot smoother offensively and defensively when he's on the floor," Smith said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for his ability to defend."
And Prince should have some help. After struggling mightily through a good portion of the season, Bogans, from DeMatha High School, has played superbly in the tournament's first two rounds. Point guard Cliff Hawkins averages 7.1 points while reserve guard Fitch and forward Marquis Estill check in at 9.2 and 8.8.
Most important for the Wildcats is the newfound outlook that winning two games in the tournament has brought. Now the players are trying to look ahead instead of backward.
"We've struggled with consistency," Smith said. "Our ability to relax and have more fun is important. [The problems] have been more psychological than physical."
Note
Smith grew up in Southern Maryland and after graduating from Great Mills High, wanted to attend Maryland in the fall of 1969 on a basketball scholarship offered by coach Frank Fellows. But when Lefty Driesell replaced Fellows, he wanted Smith to walk on instead. As one of 17 children, Smith could not afford to pay his own way, so he attended High Point College in North Carolina.
"Maryland certainly prospered [under Driesell], and they probably wouldn't have if I went there," Smith said jokingly yesterday. "He was probably right."


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