SEC East Co-Champions
The 2001-2002 Kentucky Wildcats struggled down the stretch as injuries, discipline problems and questionable team chemistry torpedoed the hopes of what Coach Orlando "Tubby" Smith said at the start was the most talented squad he had ever coached. Despite this, "Team Turmoil" (as dubbed by the local media) still managed to grab a share of the Southeastern Conference Eastern regular-season championship with the Florida Gators and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. They also gave returning champion and #1 ranked Duke all they could handle in mid-December matchup in the New Jersey Meadowlands when they took the Blue Devils to overtime, before losing 95-92. Kentucky also gave the eventual NCAA Champion Maryland Terrapins their stiffest challenge of the NCAA tournament before bowing out in the final minutes and losing 78-68.
But the team will be remembered more for what went wrong than what went right. Even before the first minute of practice began, bad breaks at inopportune times seemed to dog the team. Starting center Jason Parker reinjured the knee he was rehabilitating in the off-season minutes before Midnight Madness began and that effectively put him out of action for the year. Then UK struggled out of the gate, losing to a determined Western Kentucky squad in home opener. The team seemed to right itself in December, with the aforementioned stand-off with Duke along with other highlights including a phenonmenal shooting exhibition by Tayshaun Prince against North Carolina in a 20-point victory and an emotional route of rival Louisville and former UK head man Rick Pitino.
But as the season wore on, a key mid-season transfer by Marvin Stone, deflating losses where large leads were given up and discipline problems started popping up and continued to grow despite the UK staff's efforts to quell them. The low point likely occurred after an exasperated Tubby Smith suggested during a press conference that further transgressions could lead to banishment from the team, only to discover that Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels immediately proceeded to break curfew and tried to enter a local Lexington drinking establishment using fake ID's. The season continued to spiral out of control as players, unhappy with playing time and UK's style of play which was apparently different than what they expected when they were recruited, foolishly began to air their gripes to the local media. Freshmen Rashaad Carruth and Adam Chiles being two of more notable ones.
Despite the problems, and a deflating loss to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky was able to regroup and put together a commendable NCAA tournament showing. They soundly put away a Valparaiso squad which, no doubt spurred on by the media reports of internal strife, was emboldened enough to believe that they would run up a large lead on the Wildcats. As it was, the Wildcats thoroughly controlled the game and that set the stage for a tough victory over Tulsa, which saw senior Tayshaun Prince score 41 points in St. Louis, the same city "Goose" Givens scored 41 points in Kentucky's 1978 NCAA Championship victory over Duke. Finally, Kentucky's season came to an abrupt halt in the face of #1 seeded Maryland Terrapins. Kentucky played tough through most of the game, but missed opportunities down the stretch proved deadly against the experienced Terrapins and, they pulled away at the end, winning 78-68.
Kentucky showed flashes of their talent during the season, but were never able to put things together for an extended stretch and was eventually done in by too many distractions off the court and too many mistakes and a stagnant offense on the court. One bright spot was the development of freshman Chuck Hayes who took over a starting spot late in the season and demonstrated some badly needed toughness and maturity. Tayshaun Prince starred at times, and played well enough to once again earn All-American honors. Prince ended his career seventh in UK's All-Time Scoring record with 1775 points. He also finished in the top ten in field goals, 3-point field goals and blocked shots. Cliff Hawkins ably took over the point guard duties and effectively handled any past questions he had concerning an asthmatic condition. He was erratic at times, but proved to be a capable and effective player.
However, junior Keith Bogans, despite entering the 1000-point club, was a disappointment and never found the rhythm and effectiveness of his sophomore campaign. Gerald Fitch, someone counted on to be a leader of the team, endured some off-the-court setbacks and proved to be a major distraction for the team down the strech as he made a number of unwise moves which nearly cost him his scholarship. Freshman Rashaad Carruth was a huge disappointment, as his lack of defense kept him from earning major minutes, and even while on the court, his famed shot proved average at best. Unfortunatley for all concerned, Carruth's attitude problems and lack of maturity proved to be too large an obstacle for him to exist in a team-orientated atmosphere like that found at Kentucky, and he subsequently transferred to Oklahoma.
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