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Tubby Feels the Love in Kentucky

January 02, 2002|Robyn Norwood

It might not always look like it from where Steve Lavin sits, but UCLA is not the toughest job in the country.

It certainly isn't at Duke, where it didn't used to matter much when the Blue Devils weren't very good--and Mike Krzyzewski hasn't given anybody reason to complain in years. Besides, Duke's fan base is more national than local, with North Carolina owning much of the state.

But it isn't the Tar Heel job, either. Matt Doherty might be about to flirt with the first losing season at the school since Dean Smith's first year, but the horde won't be calling for his head.

The job with the most constant and focused scrutiny is at Kentucky, the school that has won more basketball games than any other.

Kentucky basketball doesn't share the stage with a single pro team. Even Louisville basketball is less a statewide phenomenon than a local one. And basketball is completely ingrained in the state's culture.

That's why the most interesting sidelight of Rick Pitino's return to Rupp Arena as Louisville's coach was the unanticipated outpouring of affection for Tubby Smith.

The chants of "Tub-by, Tub-by," were more pronounced than the boos for Pitino, the former Kentucky coach branded as a traitor for returning to the state as Louisville's coach after resigning from the Boston Celtics.

The famous Louisville T-shirt reading "Got Pitino?" on the front and "We do," on the back was worn by the Cardinal mascot.

Against Louisville, a sign said, "Got Tubby?"

Smith has never been embraced quite so fully as he was Saturday.

Tayshaun Prince, the smooth, versatile senior swingman from Compton Dominguez High, called the crowd's reaction "overdue."

Some of the Wildcat players even chanted along with the fans.

Forbid that Kentucky had lost to Pitino's Louisville team, though: It might have been the end of Smith.

Instead, they practically serenaded him after an 82-62 victory.

"It certainly makes you feel good to know you're wanted. It feels good to know you're appreciated," he said.

Smith won a national championship his first season at Kentucky in 1998 and has won the Southeastern Conference tournament three times.

But he has endured criticism almost constantly, and verbal abuse was heaped on his son, Saul Smith, during the two seasons he was the Wildcat point guard before graduating last year.

"I felt sorry for Tubby last year," said Pat Adams, a fan from Madisonville, Ky., who drove 180 miles to get to the game. "They were giving him heck for playing his boy. You don't mess with family."

There have been missteps.

Smith lost to Louisville the first two times he faced the Cardinals, but has won the last three.

The Wildcats started last season 1-3, then lost to USC in the NCAA regional semifinals.

Kentucky opened this season with a loss to Western Kentucky, but has since recovered with a classic performance in an overtime loss to Duke.

There have been some off-court behavioral problems from time-to-time as well.

But the bottom line is that Smith is one of the most dignified, respected coaches in the country and has many ties to the NBA, should his welcome grow worn. (He has been rumored as an Atlanta Hawks coaching candidate in the past and was an assistant to Rudy Tomjanovich for the Olympic basketball team in Sydney.)

Kentucky should be proud to have him.

We'll see if this new embrace lasts.

Somebody asked Smith if he heard all the chanting.

A glint flickered in his eyes.

"Well, during the middle of the game, I can't really appreciate it," he said.

"I'll have to go back and listen again."

Hoosier State Champs

When Butler defeated Indiana in the Hoosier Classic, it gave Butler the best claim to an unofficial Indiana state championship.

Butler--ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll and one of five remaining undefeated teams--has beaten Indiana State, Purdue, Evansville, Ball State and Indiana.

Notre Dame, Valparaiso and IUPUI aren't on the schedule, but that's a pretty fair run against state competition nonetheless.

Butler holds a special place in Indiana lore.

Bobby Plump, who made the winning shot in the 1954 state championship for tiny Milan High that inspired the movie "Hoosiers," played for Butler.

Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse was used for the movie's championship game scene.

Now that Butler wears an imaginary state crown, the Bulldogs can turn their attention to another prospect: They might have the best chance of any team in the nation at going undefeated.

Duke still must face Maryland and Virginia a total of four times--and either Duke's or Virginia's unbeaten season is guaranteed to end in Atlantic Coast Conference play, if not both.

Oklahoma State faces perhaps the toughest conference road in the Big 12.

Miami hasn't played a tough schedule yet--the Hurricanes get a test at Georgetown tonight--and must face Boston College twice, as well as contend with Connecticut and other Big East teams.

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