Date story was published: Friday, December 18, 1987
Kentucky is coming off emotionally draining struggles against archrivals Indiana and Louisville.
Another sapping experience was the just-completed final exam week.
What a perfect time for the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament, which usually turns into an exercise in self-congratulation for the Wildcats.
The 35th annual UKIT will be staged tonight and Saturday night at Rupp Arena. Middle Tennessee (5-2) and North Carolina at Charlotte (5-0), among the pre-season favorites in each's respective leagues, will play in tonight's first game. Tip-off is at 6:30 p.m.
Unbeaten and top-ranked Kentucky, which seeks its 27th UKIT championship, plays Miami of Ohio (2-4) in tonight's second game.
"Regardless of what some people might think, these are three good teams coming in," UK coach Eddie Sutton said. But "yes, I'd rather play the teams in this field than, say, Arizona, Pittsburgh or whoever else is in the Top Five."
Sutton placed the UKIT opposition among the nation's top 75 college teams. Under normal circumstances, top-ranked Kentucky would dominate, he conceded.
These aren't normal circumstances, leaving open in Sutton's mind the possibility of an upset.
"Energywise, we don't have as much energy, mentally or physically," Sutton said. "Under these conditions, any of the three teams could beat us. If we were playing a series with these teams, I believe we'd win the series."
Here is a look at the three teams visiting the UKIT:
The Redskins have surrendered an average of 84.2 points a game. Coach Jerry Peirson blames an impatient offense and a still-learning defense.
"We're not as consistent and fluid as we should be (offensively)," Peirson said. "We've been too helter-skelter. Defensively, we've allowed the other teams to shoot too well (53.2 percent)."
Miami's opposition has averaged 84.2 points per game, almost five more than the Redskins' have scored (79.5).
The introduction of two players who sat out last season has slowed Miami's development, Peirson said. Guard Eric Newsome, the team's leading scorer (24.2 ppg), sat out last season because of a severe groin injury. Forward Lamont Hanna (8.0 ppg) missed last season because of a injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident.
Peirson has gone to a larger lineup that includes 6-10 freshman Jim Paul at center.
"Offensively, we can score enough points," Newsome said. "We have to shore up the defense and not let the ball go inside so much."
At 5-0, the 49ers are off to their best start since 1981-82. That team won its first six and was 10-1 before finishing 15-12. The slump cost former UK player Mike Pratt his job as UNCC coach.
Another coach with Lexington ties, former Lafayette High star Jeff Mullins, brings Charlotte to town. Mullins is happy with the start, but he can read the schedule, too. The opposition so far has been Longwood, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Davidson.
"We know the competition will get better," Mullins said, "but I'd rather learn and be 5-0 rather than learn and be something else."
Charlotte, among the favorites in the Sun Belt Conference, has "the makings of a nice team," Mullins said. "We've got good perimeter play, but our inside chemistry is not good yet."
The perimeter star is point guard Byron Dinkins, whose 21.5-point average heads the team's list of four double-figure scorers. Dinkins, a thin 6-2 junior, also leads the team in assists (6.3 per game).
"He's a Johnny Dawkins clone except he's right-handed," Middle Tennessee coach Bruce Stewart said. "We've got to contain him."
Mullins shied from the Dawkins comparison. "He's not as strong," the UNCC coach said. But, "he's important to us in a lot of ways: points, assists and ball handling."
Players who must iron out the front-line wrinkles include 6-7 forward Ronnie Bellamy (Walt's baby brother), 6-10 freshman Sam Robson (a native of Durham, England), 6-8 sophomore Cedric Ball, freshman Dan Banister and starting center Dan Plondke (10.4 ppg).
Guard Jeff West, Dinkins, Plondke and Bellamy all started on last season's 18-14 team.
Middle is the defending Ohio Valley Conference champ and, with Austin Peay, the choice to finish at the top this winter.
OVC assist champion Duane Washington (8.8 apg) and double-figure scorer Andrew Tunstill (14.7 ppg) are gone from that team.
More setbacks came when Washington's heir apparent, point guard Gerald Harris, twisted his knee in the pre-season and sixth man Kerry Hammonds (9.0 ppg) suffered a stress fracture in his foot.
Three starters return from the team that beat Michigan 85-83 last season. Back are mammoth center Dwayne Rainey (6-7 and 260), forward Randy Henry and swingman Tyrus Baynham. All three are double-figure scorers: Rainey at 13.3 ppg; Henry at 11.7 ppg, and Baynham at 14.5.
Stewart has shuffled his backcourt. Chris Rainey (no relation) moved from the No. 2 position to the point. He's averaging 17.6 points, a figure inflated by his 20-of-30 accuracy from three-point territory.
Freshman Leslie Gregory (14.1 ppg) starts at shooting guard rather than coming off the bench as Stewart planned.
"It's a team that's improving," the Middle coach said. "We need to take another couple steps: (improved) toughness and maturity. We're decent. We're no slouch."
The Middle-Charlotte game tonight will be no bummer, Stewart predicted.
"That game will be a war," he said. "They're after the same thing we are: respect. We both want a shot at Kentucky."
One problem: Only eight teams -- none since Texas A&M in 1978 -- have shot down Kentucky in the UKIT.