- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

LEXINGTON, Ky. Keith Bogans has one last shot.

Four years ago, when the Alexandria native and DeMatha product arrived at Kentucky as the nation's top freshman recruit, nobody thought he would see his senior season in Lexington. Prepsters with his pedigree aren't supposed to need four years of NBA prep work.

"Sure, even I thought that way," said Bogans, a 6-foot-5 senior swingman for the Wildcats, who start the season next week at the Maui Invitational. "If you had told me a few years ago that I'd still be here for my senior season, I probably would have said you were crazy. But here we are. This is my last crack at it, college basketball, and I just want to make the most of it."

His body, devoid of fat and rippling with 215 pounds of ropey muscle, screams NBA. His instincts, get to the rim and rip it down, are perfect for the big-boy game. And his tutelage, four years under Morgan Wootten at DeMatha and three more in the cradle of college hoops, has armed him for any on-court contingency.

Then there's his jumper an unorthodox, unruly knuckler that seems committed to sabotaging the entire package.

"Honestly, he just hasn't proved to anybody that he can shoot," said one NBA scout when asked to evaluate Bogans. "We're all waiting to see if last season was an aberration or the norm."

Last season was a calamitous clang-fest for Bogans, a disastrous brick-heaving fiasco in which he dropped from preseason All-American to midseason All-Alaskan.

"It's like I was cold all season. Everybody has droughts, but mine lasted pretty much all year," said Bogans last week. "I just wasn't prepared for it mentally."

Bogans, who led Kentucky in scoring as a sophomore, averaging 17 points on 47 percent shooting, watched his numbers plummet last season. He shot less than 40 percent for the season, barely eclipsing the 30 percent plateau from 3-point range. And over the Wildcats' final 23 regular-season games, he averaged just 9.4 points, losing his starting slot to Chuck Hayes in the middle of Kentucky's SEC campaign.

Bogans still hasn't put his finger on the cause of the slump, but Kentucky coach Tubby Smith thinks it might have started in the late spring of 2001 at the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago.

"He led us in scoring as a sophomore, thought he was ready to make the jump to the next level and put his name in the draft," Smith said last week. "Things didn't work out for him in Chicago, and when he decided to come back to school, things were different for him. The honeymoon was over with the fans. They took his leaving early as a slap in the face. And when he came back, they weren't as quick to embrace him, so he had something to prove to them.

"And his honeymoon with superstardom was over. Maybe he had something to prove to me, to his teammates and to himself that he was good enough to play in the NBA right then and that the league had made a mistake. It was like there was all this added pressure on him, and that set him up for a tough year."

You can't hide from such a slide in Wildcat country, not in a place that fills 23,000-seat Rupp Arena for exhibition games.

"The media and fans tore me up, but that's part of playing at a place like Kentucky," said Bogans. "I'm not going to say it didn't hurt, but it forced me to mature a lot. As a person, I had to deal with it, because I was frustrated and disappointed with myself. And as a player, I had to learn to contribute in other ways besides simply putting the ball in the hole."

Bogans emerged from his tailspin during the NCAA tournament, averaging 18.3 points in three games and helping UK push eventual champion Maryland to the brink in the East Region semifinals before losing 78-68. But this season, three-year running mate and All-American Tayshaun Prince is gone. And point guard Cliff Hawkins, another local native (Woodbridge), is academically ineligible for the first semester.

That places Bogans squarely back in the limelight. He doesn't have time to sit around and sulk about the season on the blink. And he doesn't have the luxury to wistfully discuss life in the NBA with close friends DerMarr Johnson and Joe Forte, local contemporaries who each moved on to the league after just one and two seasons of college ball, respectively. In order for 17th-ranked Kentucky to contend with Florida and Georgia in the SEC's brutal East division, Bogans must regain his sophomore form while behaving like a senior.

"It feels a lot different this year, being a senior, knowing I need to be a leader. But it's a role I'm willing to take," said the 22-year-old Bogans. "This feels like my team and my season."

It certainly started out that way for Bogans. Last week in Kentucky's opening exhibition game against Athletes in Action, Bogans banged home a twisting 25-footer at the buzzer to lift the 'Cats to an 83-82 victory. The shot came after a horrid night in which he made just one of his first eight shots. But if the cold start marked a continuation of last season's struggles, maybe the overall game, with it's thrilling result, will stand as a microcosm of his entire career.

"Last year, I don't think my head would have even been in the game enough for me to take that shot," said Bogans. "But this year it's different. All I wanted was that one last shot."

You got it.

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