UK And First-Year Coach Strutted To Success
Though No Title, A Lot To Be Thankful For
All season Kentucky baffled the college basketball world.
The Wildcats, picked in the preseason to finish only third in the Southeastern Conference, entered NCAA Tournament play ranked third in the nation.
But the dream of a national championship disappeared when LSU sturined the Cats 59-57 in the Southeast Region finals in Atlanta.
Kentucky's overachievers simply picked the wrong game to become underachievers. Losers don't get a second chance in the NCAA. LSU had lost
Cats' Pause Columnist
three times to the Cats this season but it got the victory in the biggest meeting of the campaign.
Kentucky expected to beat LSU just as it had 32 other opponents. All season UK believed it could win no matter what happened. That confidence was the key to turning Eddie Sutton's first year at UK into a Cinderella story.
Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight in Atlanta, not Dallas, for Kentucky. But next week or next month the UK players will realize that only one of the 64 teams that started NCAA walked away a winner.
The UK season ended in heartache for the players, coaches and fans. The Cats seemed to be a team of destiny but the magic that had carried the squad all season was missing against LSU.
Still, look at what a team without a starter over 6-8 accomplished during the 1985-86 campaign :
— In December the Cats beat rivals Indiana and Louisville.
— UK won the regular season Southeastern Conference championshp, matching the best-ever league record of 17-1. Only the 1980-81 LSU Tigers and 1969-70 Wildcats had finished league play 17-1.
— Kentucky won the SEC Tournament, becoming only the second regular season champion to manage that feat. The first was the 1984 UK team that went to the Final Four
— Walker, perhaps the best all-around player ever to wear the blue and white, finished his distinguished career with 2,080 points. The only name in front of his on the all-time UK scoring list now is Dan Issel, who had 2,138 points.
— Harden, the team's inspirational leader who made everyone believe Kentucky could win the national title, dished out a school record 232 assists. It's a mark that should stand for years.
— Kentucky won 30 or more games for only the sixth time in the school's historv
The year ended on sad note for Kentucky but don't make the mistake of judging an outstanding season on one game.
Sutton couldn't have predicted a 32-4 season. No one could, especially after a preseason story by the Lexington Herald-Leader quoted 31 former Wildcats as saying thev knew of improper cash payments or gifts that had been given to players
But Kentucky fans across the stare rallied around Sutton's team after that. Instead of destroying the team the Herald-Leader story brought the Cats closer together. And that laid the foundation for the incredible year.
Kentucky accomplished more than anyone had a right to expect this season and that's what should be remembered about this group of overachievers who almost saw a dream come true.
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SUTTON, LIKE most UK fans, is already thinking ahead to next season.
"You don't replace a great player like Kenny Walker or a Roger Harden," says Sutton. "We will have a different type of team next year. Our personality will change."
Kentucky, though, will have three returning starters in Winston Bennett, Ed Davender and James Blackmon. Cedric Jenkins, Rob Lock and Richard Madison ?hould all be improved because of the experience they gained this season
"I'm not sure we can win 32 games but we can still be a force in the SEC," says Sutt«n.
The Cats could even start freshman-to-be Rex Chapman next November The 6-4 guard was one of the nation's top recruits this season
"I have no reservations about starting a freshman," said Sutton. "Playing time is determined on the court. If a freshman can convince me he is better than an upperclassman he will play.
"Rex will get his chance and he is going to be a great player. I'll put five up-perclassmen ahead of him Oct. 15 (when practice starts) but he has a great chance to start. We might go back to the three-guard offense and let him replace Roger."
The Cats also remain in the hunt for 6-9 Harvey Grant of Independence (Kan.) Junior College. "He's one of the three or four best junior college players in America but he still hasn't made a decision," says Sutton, who doesn't expect to fill all four remaining scholarships UK has to offer.
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THE UK COACH hopes to take his team to Japan to play this summer. That trip could provide some valuable experience for Lock and Jenkins.
"Both of them should have been redshirted last year or this year," said Sutton. "They couldn't afford to do that last year and we couldn't afford it this year. But it would have really helped both of them."
The trip would benefit the whole team. Kentucky must learn to play without Walker, who has carried the squad for two seasons. Having an opportunity to work out and play together this summer under Sutton's guidance could pay big dividends during the 1986-87 campaign.
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ANY DOUBTS about whether 6-8 Reggie Hanson of Pulaski County could play at the University of Kentucky were put to rest during the recent state tournament.
All Hanson did was score 92 points in four games and lead his team to its first state championship. Hanson was named the tourney's most valuable player.
"I think Reggie showed people across the state what we have known all along," says Pulaski Coach Dave Fraley. "He is a fine player and he will have a good career at Kentucky. I think everyone will finally believe that now "
Hanson made believers out of those who saw him in Lexington. He had 37 points in a quarterfinal win over Clark County. Against Owensboro in the semifinal he hit two free throws in overtime to win the game after his free throw with one second to play in regulation tied the score. That clutch shooting showed Hanson could survive the pressure he will face as a Wildcat
Pulaski became only the second team from the 12th Region ever to win the
state tourney. The first was Laurel County in 1983 when current Wildcat Paul Andrews hit a last-second shot from near midcourt to decide the title game.
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IF EVERYTHING works out during spring football practice Mark Logan and Mark Higgs could be in the backfield together much of the 1986 campaign.
Logan, UK's top rusher with 715 yards in 1985, shared time at tailback with Higgs last season while also seeing some duty at fullback.
UK, though, seldom ran the fullback last season and opponents keyed on the tailbacks. Moving Logan to fullback could solve that problem and give more punch to UK's attack.
Another key move involves redshirt freshman Mike Pfeifer. He is being switched from defensive tackle to offensive tackle to shore up UK's biggest problem area of 1985.