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Kentucky's Troubles Ankle Deep?

Midwest's top-seeded team and winner of 26 in a row might have to go without injured Bogans against surging Marquette.

March 29, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — Every coach has a cross to bear, even when his team is in the Elite Eight.

Tom Crean of Marquette deftly deflected speculation about the UCLA opening Friday, continuing his stealth candidacy as his team marches through the Midwest Regional.

"It would be foolish for me to talk about it right now," he said. "It's always flattering when people think you do a good job and it's not a distraction to me at all. I just don't get caught up in it."

Tubby Smith of Kentucky had no choice but to confront the left high-ankle sprain suffered by standout guard Keith Bogans in the victory over Wisconsin on Thursday, an injury that puts the Wildcat 26-game winning streak in jeopardy.

Bogans, speaking in a tone so low he was barely audible, said he will not put pressure on the ankle until game time, then decide whether he can play.

Smith's contingency plan is to start Cliff Hawkins, who gives up four inches to the 6-foot-5 Bogans and essentially puts two point guards on the floor, Hawkins and Gerald Fitch.

The absence of Bogans would make it especially difficult for Kentucky (32-3) to defend Marquette's 6-4 guard Dwyane Wade, whose 20-point second half was the difference in a 77-74 semifinal victory over Pittsburgh.

"High ankle sprains can be real bad," Smith said. "You can miss a month. We'll find ways to rotate people and keep everybody fresh."

Marquette (26-5) is preparing as if Bogans, Kentucky's leading scorer at 15.7 points, will play.

"We have to assume he's in," Marquette forward Todd Townsend said. "He's another scoring threat and his defensive ball pressure is great.

"It's no disrespect to Bogans, but they played pretty well without him."

No Wildcat contributed more against Wisconsin than 6-9, 240-pound post player Marquis Estill, whose 28 points were a career high. Marquette counters with senior Robert Jackson, who at 6-10, 260 pounds should not get shoved around as easily as the Wisconsin interior.

Crean indicated defending Estill will be a priority. In other words, expect a double team with either Scott Merritt or Scott Novak helping Jackson. Merritt and Novak are 6-10 but lack the heft of Jackson and Estill.

"They've got a few big guys," Estill said. "They play strong and aggressive inside. I'm looking forward to more of a challenge."

Kentucky is certain to pound the ball inside to Estill early. He might find teammates open on the perimeter.

"It's our opening plan every game," he said. "That's when we are best -- get the ball inside and when they come down with the trap, kick the ball out."

On the other end, Kentucky must find a way to slow Wade, who averages 21.4 points and slashed through the vaunted Pittsburgh defense for several layups. Chuck Hayes, a 6-7 forward, probably will draw the assignment, although Hawkins will help.

Bogans has been the defensive stopper all season, but even if he plays he can't be expected to keep up with the explosive Wade.

"Keith has been leading us all year," Fitch said. "If he can't play, we just have to keep our heads up and move on. We feel there is enough talent on this team to carry us through."

There is no reason to believe otherwise. Kentucky has not lost in 2003 and 18 of the 26 consecutive victories have been by margins in double figures. Crean was so consumed with trying to find a weakness in the Wildcats he got less than an hour of sleep.

"We had a very short night, but I think we got a good grasp of just how good Kentucky is," he said. "They are not a one-man team, much like we are not. They have so many players they can put on the floor that create havoc defensively, and they play very unselfishly on offense.

"We have a heck of a task on our hands."

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