Associated Press #1
For only the eighth time in UK history, the Kentucky Wildcats finished the regular season ranked #1 in the nation by the Associated Press. The 2002-2003 edition rode a nation's best 26-game winning streak before bowing out in the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament to a motivated Marquette Golden Eagle squad. Their final record was an impressive 32-4. Along the way, the Wildcats swept the always-difficult Southeastern Conference and Southeastern Conference tournament, despite not being picked by many sportswriters as one of the top contenders for their division. Coach Orlando "Tubby" Smith swept the national coaching awards and after the season signed a multi-year extension to stay on as head coach of the Wildcats.
The 2002-03 season marked the 100th anniversary of the Kentucky program, which is the winningest men's collegiate basketball program in history. Special events and commemorations were performed throughout the year, from a game against Michigan State which featured 'throw-back' jerseys, a series of bobble-heads of famous UK coaches and players, a commemorative DVD and program, to a reunion of lettermen and naming of a fan's top-5 during halftime of a game against Mississippi State among many other things.
The season started roughly as the Wildcats struggled early and it looked like Kentucky would fall into a similar pattern of years past. Even before the season began, things began to fall apart as inside strongman Jason Parker was dismissed from the team for violating team policies. This was followed by news that junior forward Erik Daniels would miss the first four games of the season (due to a minor infraction involving participation in summer games) and starting point guard Cliff Hawkins would be academically ineligible for at least the first semester. Kentucky fell in the second round of the Maui Invitational to an inferior Virginia Cavalier squad by shooting a miserable 2-22 from the three-point line. This loss prevented a matchup with long-time rival Indiana in the championship game, although the Wildcats did manage to salvage the trip with a win over a tough Gonzaga squad. To make matters worse, newcomer swingman Antwain Barbour broke his hand in Hawaii and would be out of action for a number of weeks.
The trip to Hawaii was followed by nail-biters against Indiana (a memorable win which was sealed by an emotional outburst by IU coach Mike Davis) and Michigan State (a disappointing loss). The low point of the season came when Kentucky travelled to Freedom Hall to face not only former UK coach Rick Pitino, but former teammate Marvin Stone who had transferred to the Cardinals at midseason of 2001-02 and was looking to make a statement against his former team. He and his new teammates did make a statement, and the Cardinals ran away with the game, handing UK with an 18-point loss. With Wildcat fans justifiably upset over the loss to their heated rival, the team looked like it was headed down the path "Team Turmoil" took the year previously.
However instead of repeating the pattern, the season took a turn for the better at that point. Daniels, Barbour and Hawkins all returned and began to integrate themselves more into the rotation without disrupting team chemistry. Senior guard Keith Bogans assumed a leadership position on the team and proved to be a very consistent and efficient player for the Wildcats, in stark contrast to his dreadful junior year. Gerald Fitch ably assumed the point guard role in the absence of Hawkins and continued to perform well at whatever position on the floor he was asked to assume. Chuck Hayes blossomed after a promising freshman year and became a more consistent and important piece of Kentucky's offensive and defensive attack. Jules Camara and Marquis Estill played well inside with Estill dominating at times. The two sometimes played together using a high-low attack which was hard for UK's opponents to defend.
Kentucky took advantage of some weaker opponents prior to beginning SEC play, which gave them a chance to gel more as a team and allow some of the younger players some time on the floor. The turning point of the season occurred early in January in a game against Vanderbilt in Nashville. The Wildcats found themselves down at halftime 36-28. Coach Smith challenged his team to take pride in their defense. The players accepted the challenge and came out to blitz the Commodores in the second half, running away with the game 74-52. From that point on, the team embraced Smith's defensive philosophy and made it a key focus. The rest of the SEC had no chance at that point as the Wildcats shut down with regularity many of the highly regarded players and teams in the league. Memorable moments during the run included breezing past a tough Notre Dame squad on national television, humiliating then-highly regarded Alabama in Tuscaloosa, crushing newly crowned #1 Florida by 15 points (in a game which wasn't nearly that close), shutting down a strong Georgia team twice, and blasting a Vanderbilt Commodore team by 62 points on senior day.
Kentucky was awarded a #1 seed in the Midwest region and looked to be a popular pick to contend for the national title. They breezed through their first two games, which included yet another matchup with Rick Majerus and his Utah Utes, however an untimely injury to star guard Keith Bogans during the third round game against Wisconsin proved to be UK's undoing. Without Bogans for most of the game, UK struggled to put away the Big-Ten champion Badgers. A hobbling Bogans returned two days later for the regional finals but UK ended up running into a buzz-saw in All-American guard Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Marquette Golden Eagles. The game was held before a raucous and largely partisan crowd of pro-Marquette supporters in Minneapolis. Apparently many of the vaunted Big Blue Faithful (who are well known for following UK and filling up stadiums) had decided to skip the wintry climate of Minnesota in favor of a trip to the Big Easy the following week.
While the end of the season was untimely, the season was an unqualified success. The players came together and finally began to play with passion and with the sense of purpose which UK fans have come to expect, and the results were evident on the court. Coach Smith deservedly swept Coach of the Year honors from every media outlet possible. He was awarded with a much-deserved contract extension after the end of the season. Senior Keith Bogans was named 3rd team All-American and finished 4th on the all-time Kentucky scoring list with 1923 points. Bogans was also named as the SEC Player of the Year and the SEC Tournament MVP.
Seated (L-R) Assistant David Hobbs, Coach Tubby Smith, Ravi Moss, Matt Heissenbuttel, Gerald Fitch, Keith Bogans, Cliff Hawkins, Brandon Stockton, Preston LeMaster, Assistant Reggie Hanson, Assistant Scott Rigot.
Standing: Basketball Operations Director Leon Smith, Equiment Manager Bill Keightley, Athletic Trainer David Kindy, Josh Carrier, Chuck Hayes, Marquis Estill, Jules Camara, Bernard Cote, Erik Daniels, Kelenna Azubuike, Antwain Barbour, Manager Allen Edwards, Special Assistant Kevin Murphy, Strength Coach Tom Boyd.
|Jules Camara||Keith Bogans||Marquis Estill|
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