Here's Why 'Cats Were Among Sweet 16. . .
Maturity Played Big Role In UK's Improvement
Eleven letters that spell out why the University of Kentucky Wildcats were amongthe last 16 teams still playing when regional semifinal and final action kicked into gear last week.
Cats' Pause Columnist
Coach Eddie Sutton's squad has matured into a team that will do whatever it takes to win and that is a big change from its first few efforts in December.
At the start of the year, the Cats played only as well as super sophomore Rex Chapman did, for the most part. If Rex was in high gear, so was UK If Rex couldn't find the hole, the entire team struggled.
But now, especially after the Wildcats' showing in Cincinnati, that is definitely not the case.
Kentucky has even shown that it can beat a quality opponent without Chapman, a feat that few believed, when they dethroned Big East "power" Syracuse in Rupp Arena before a national television audience in one of their last regular season games.
MATURITY HAS MADE the difference. The 1987-88 edition of the Cats have perhaps come farther over the course of the season that any other in recent memory.
Back in December, practically everything about the team was questionable. —Will Rex be able to withstand the pressure that UK fans place on him for another season?
—Can Winston Bennett return to his former status after knee surgery?
—Will Rob Lock finally prove to more than a liability in the post?
—Can two of the nation's best freshmen, LeRon Ellis and Eric Manuel, make a contribution this season?
—Will Ed Davender be able to successfully take over Roger Hardin's slot at point guard?
—Can either Richard Madison or Cedric Jenkins finally, in their senior seasons, live up to their press clippings? LETS TAKE THEM one at a time.
1. Chapman can handle practically anything that is dished out at him by anyone, and that includes the UK coaching staff, the plethora of Kentucky fanactics and the sometimes overzealous media.
He survived the overblown "scandal" of his and Sutton's differences about Chapman's shot selection. He came through his back injury in flying colors. He, in my humble opinion, is playing better now than he ever has.
It is beyond me how he was passed over for all three Associated Press All-America teams. It was also a total surprise to see Vanderbilt's Will Perdue mentioned on the third team. I agree that Perdue was the Southeastern Conference's premiere post man, but he isn't in the same league as Rex.
AND NO, I didn't get to vote on the teams so I plead innocence. I also beg sympathy for my overwrought brethren who had ballots without "Chapman" penciled on them.
2. If there is any doubt that Bennett is just as mean a beater and banger now as he was two seasons ago, ask any frontline in the SEC. He is one of the league's top rebounders and has proven that jump shot is effective outside the paint. This is an even better Winston Bennett than we would have seen last season.
3. Rob Lock is at the top of my "Biggest Surprises of the Season" list. I, too, had almost entirely written off the Reedley, Calif., product, but he is going out with a bang. If there is an SEC "Most Improved Player" award, Lock should get it hands down.
YOU'VE ALL HEARD about his incredible increase in free throw proficiency, but he's also made some marked improvements in rebounding and is playing the post with much more authority and confidence. He's great at faking, er, taking the charge and he has almost quit trying to dribble in the paint.
Lock also leads the team in off-the-wall humor (he is from California, you know). In my book, there are all pluses beside his name.
4. Ellis and Manuel have been both a surprise and a disappointment. Ellis started off like gangbusters, wowing one of the Blue-White scrimmage crowds with a pair of rim-rattling alley-oop dunks, but he never made it any farther.
Sure, we were probably expecting too much and his illnesses and ankle injury surely didn't help matters. Perhaps it's just a case of trying too hard more than anything else. But let's not scratch his name off the 1990 or '91 All-American lists just yet.
MANUEL IS THE other side of the coin. He started out like many freshmen — timid, uncertain and overwhelmed. However, he has gotten better
with almost every game and will probably continue to do so.
He has quietly made the difference in several of UKs recent wins. His 13 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists against Southern University in the opening round of the NCAA tourney barely received a mention. Likewise for his 13
points and 5 assists against Maryland.
5. Surely no one still has any doubts about whether Ed "The most underrated player in America" Davender can play the point. True, he hasn't turned into the greatest assist man in school history, but Ed has been carrying too much of the scoring load to be dishing out double-digit assists every game.
HE HAD 53 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists in the two games in Cincinnati, including a career-high 30-point effort against Southern. Who could ask for anything more?
6. See Eric Manuel, answer No. 4., above. Madison and Jenkins combined for 25 minutes of playing time in Cincinnati. Manuel accounted for 74. "Nuff said.
While in the River City, the Cats showed they can run-and-gun with the best of them by simply outscoring Southern, plus also bang the boards with one of the better rebounding teams around in Maryland.
Incidentally, UK shot 62 percent in those two wins. I will be very surprised if Kentucky is not playing in Kansas City this weekend. Like I said, whatever it takes.
NCAA TOURNEY NOTES:
—There only two coaches in this year's NCAA field that have coached in the tourney more than UK's Eddie Sutton — Lou Carnesecca of St. John's (15 times) and North Carolina's Dean Smith (18 times). Sutton is coaching in his 13th tourney, along with Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV; Lou Henson, Illinois; Denny Crum, Louisville; and Digger Phelps, Notre Dame.
—I'm fairly pleased with the results of my tournament predictions that appeared last issue. While I hit on only 22 of the 32 first-round games, I got 10 of the final 16 teams right. But then, everyone missed on Richmond and Rhode Island, right? And what about Kansas State, Villanova and Vandy? Kansas was the only one I missed that was not a real big surprise to me; I just simply blew an upset pick on Xavier.
—And don't forget my Final Four picks for this weekend: Kentucky over Arizona and Purdue over Duke in the semifinals, with Purdue edging UK in the finals.
—How good is Kentucky? Let's let Southern coach Ben Jobe explain.
"I see no reason they can't go to the Final Four and win it all. They're the best club we've played in the two years I've been at Southern.
"Their depth is fantastic and that's what would hurt a team like (No. 1) Temple. If it comes downs to No. 1 and Kentucky, I'd put my money on Kentucky."
—Rex Chapman also didn't make the Ail-American teams selected by the United States Basketball Writers Association, but he and Winston Bennett did make the group's all-district team.
That squad, picked from teams in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, also included Duane Ferrell and Tom Hammonds of Georgia Tech, Pervis Ellison of Louisville, Chris Morris of Auburn, Dyron Nix of Tennessee, Will Perdue of Vanderbilt, Willie Anderson of Georgia and Vernon Maxwell of Florida.
Perdue was player of the year for the district and his mentor, CM. Newton, was voted coach of the year.
—Speaking of Vanderbilt, can you picture Clay County's Richie Farmer wearing a Commodore uniform next season? I can.
—Speaking of Richie Farmer, the 1988 selections for Mr. and Miss Basketball in Kentucky will be announced April 16 at a meeting of the Kentucky Associated Press Sports Editors Association in Lexington.
—For those of you who have had it up to here with basketball, things are looking up. The first spring football media guides of the season crossed my desk last week. However, I had to file them away until I can get used to a ball that doesn't bounce straight, again.