March 22, 2001
PHILADELPHIA - Coaching basketball in Kentucky means following in some long shadows, surrounded by a legacy of championship banners, expected to add to the collection.
Tubby Smith delivered on that agenda in 1998, his first season at Lexington. But that was three NCAA tournaments ago, a lifetime in Kentucky basketball.
So, when the young Wildcats, with just one senior on the roster, began this season at 3-5, there was a cacophony of criticism for the coach, who suddenly found himself the target of complaints from the faithful.
Now, after a 21-4 turnaround since that troubling start, Kentucky is in the NCAA East regional semifinals Thursday night against Southern California, and the coach's hot seat has cooled for the moment, at least.
Smith knows that could be a strictly temporary condition. Heat comes with the job.
"First, you have to understand that Kentucky basketball is bigger than you," Smith said, explaining the pressure of coaching this team. "It's always going to be bigger than you. It existed long before you, and it is going to exist long after you, and you have to accept that fact, that you are just a guardian and someone that's hopefully maintaining the program and managing it."
There is plenty to maintain.
Kentucky is the leader in college basketball victories with 1,795. There have been seven NCAA championships. The Wildcats have been in the tournament a record 42 times, and have reached the regional semifinals 37 times. It is an impressive litany of excellence.
So when this team began 3-5, well that was just not acceptable in the land of blue grass and thoroughbreds where Adolph Rupp, who started this success story, is still revered.
Smith heard all the sniping.
"When you are at that stage and everything else around you is negative, how do you stay positive?" he said, "You've got to focus as a coach on being positive. Be the most positive at practice, with the media, because if I allow any negativity in, it's going to be a problem."
And Kentucky already had enough problems.
Smith's X's and O's solution was to do a little tinkering with his team's parts.
He moved Tayshaun Prince from the No. 3 to the No. 4 spot, forcing opposing power forwards to deal with his quickness and opening up the court for the rail thin sharpshooter from California. Then he promoted freshman Gerald Fitch to the starting lineup, slotting him in the backcourt alongside the coach's son, Saul, the team's only senior.
And just like that, Kentucky started winning again, going on a 15-2 run.
The catalyst seemed to be Prince, who carries a streak of 29 straight games in which he has scored in double figures. He has made 15 of his last 20 3-point shots and has emerged as the Wildcats' go-to guy, a role in which he has flourished.
"I was a leader for three years in high school and last year at Kentucky, when we had just two seniors," he said. "Now, with one senior, I'm another leader."
And the position switch has benefitted him, as well.
"In high school, I was given the opportunity to develop wing skills," he said. "I'm a wing player."
With Prince scoring almost at will, Kentucky soared through the end of the regular season and then won the SEC tournament before continuing its success in the NCAA tournament.
Suddenly, Smith looked like a genius again.
Maybe it's the calendar. Since he took over the program in 1997, Smith's teams are 22-4 in March and are averaging 27.5 wins per season.
Of course, none of this guarantees any serenity for the coach. He knows the complaints are only always lurking in Lexington. Check him out the next time the Wildcats lose two or three in a row.
By HAL BOCK
AP Sports Writer