Date story published: Sunday, November 21, 2004
It's a given that Kentucky will rely on veterans Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike this season. But the opening 77-46 victory over Coppin State yesterday proved the Cats are not dependent on the twosome as scorers.
Hayes and Azubuike combined to make only four of 17 shots, yet UK did what Final Four contenders are supposed to do to the Coppin States of the basketball world. The Cats never trailed and led by as much as 40 as Coach Tubby Smith liberally substituted (11 players logged double-digit minutes).
"I don't know what it says," UK Associate Coach David Hobbs said of a daily double of blowout margin and Hayes/ Azubuike shooting blanks. "It's so early. Who knows what it says?"
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It said that Kentucky's defense can suffocate Coppin State, which was without its second-leading scorer of last season, Kelvin Green, a Seventh-day Adventist who does not play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
The Cats limited Coppin State to one basket in nearly the first 13 minutes. During that span, Coppin State got eight shots on the rim.
"Superb defense," Smith said of limiting Coppin State to 24 percent shooting in the first half and 33.3 percent for the game.
What it seemed to confirm was the hype heaped on Kentucky's freshmen. In particular, guard Rajon Rondo excelled in his UK debut. His 21 minutes were filled with memorable plays, be it five steals (as many as UK had in nine games last season) or crashing to the floor when undercut going up for a lob dunk.
"I got a scouting report on him at Cracker Barrel (on Friday)," Coppin State Coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell said of Rondo. "A guy told me: real quick, causes problems with his defense. That was right before my fried chicken came.
"The guy was correct."
The only thing Rondo didn't do was talk to the media after the game about his play. Smith has put the freshmen off limits to reporters.
"I like (to wait) till they are able to handle themselves," the UK coach said when asked about the ban.
Popular press room theories had Smith fretting about glowing media coverage on the freshmen causing fissures among teammates. Or he wanted to keep the first-year players grounded.
Whatever the reason, the veterans filled the void.
Asked what it was like to play against Rondo in practice, junior Ravi Moss said, "I hate it. I don't like it. He's active. You can't be lazy or lackadaisical because he'll be in the passing lane."
Smith, who seemed intent on halting any runaway enthusiasm generated by the opener, pointed out areas in need of improvement. The Cats didn't finish plays around the basket. Hayes, who made only two of nine shots, pleaded guilty. "I was overly excited," he said. "I didn't take my time. I rushed."
Smith noted the unfilled need to make the extra pass. Of UK's 17 assists, the coach said, "I thought we should have had 30."
Even Rondo's play caused the UK coach to grumble about the freshman's knack for successfully gambling for steals.
"A very good player has to be careful with that," Smith said. "You can get in a bad habit of thinking you do that all the time and you really can't. We gave up a couple buckets because you reached and gambled."
Rondo spearheaded a pressing defense that quickly took Coppin State out of the game. With a trapping, pressing defense that evoked the days of Rick Pitino's full-court pressure, the Cats trapped Coppin State's first two inbounds passes. The traps yielded steals. Patrick Sparks hit a three-pointer on the first. The second didn't translate into points, but it helped set a tone.
"This was one of the rare times I saw one of my teams play with fear," the Coppin State coach said.
Kentucky's pressure disrupted Mitchell's plan to slow the tempo by milking the shot clock and playing zone defense.
Even with Hayes and Azubuike misfiring more than usual, the outcome seemed inevitable.