LEXINGTON, Ky. - The similarities between Kentucky's last national championship run and this season are striking.
In Tubby Smith's first season as coach in 1997-98, the Wildcats lost to Louisville on Dec. 27, lost for the last time on Feb. 14, won the Southeastern Conference tournament in Atlanta and then the NCAA title in San Antonio.
This season, Kentucky lost to Louisville on Dec. 27, lost for the last time on Feb. 14 and won the SEC tournament in Atlanta.
This season's Final Four site? San Antonio.
It's no wonder Kentucky is favored to win its eighth NCAA basketball title.
"We're dangerous," junior forward Chuck Hayes said. "Confident. It's not cocky. It's confident."
South Carolina coach Dave Odom, whose team lost three times to Kentucky this season, said the Wildcats are peaking at just the right time.
Smith "has got total command of his team, and they are a joy to watch," Odom said. "I really like the way they play. I'm not saying they'll necessarily win the national championship, but it will take a really good basketball team playing their best to beat them."
A season-best nine-game winning streak helped earn Kentucky (26-4) the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament. But the Wildcats have had their low points, including a 65-56 loss at home to archrival Louisville.
Another Rupp Arena loss, 65-57 to Georgia on Jan. 17, snapped the Wildcats' 19-game SEC regular-season winning streak. Kentucky players vowed revenge when the teams met again Feb. 14, but Georgia beat the Wildcats 74-68.
Smith had scolded his players about not playing physical enough before that game. Afterward he began scheduling 6 a.m. practices.
Suddenly, Kentucky went from a team that won three one-point games during the first half of its SEC schedule to one that routinely recorded routs - winning by 17 points over Arkansas, 32 over Tennessee, 19 over South Carolina and 20 over Florida.
Kentucky beat Georgia in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, then defeated South Carolina 78-63 and topped Florida 89-73 for their 25th league tournament title. The Wildcats are not only playing more physical basketball, they're also hitting outside shots, averaged about eight 3-pointers in the last seven games.
Odom called the Wildcats the "best pass-and-catch team in the country" and raved about their ball movement.
Kentucky recorded assists on 47 of 83 field goals during the SEC tournament, and had just 27 turnovers in three games.
Scoring balance is another key to Kentucky's success. A different player led the team in scoring each day of the SEC tournament, continuing a season-long trend. Six players have led the Wildcats in scoring in at least one game this season, and five players have scoring averages between 10.2 and 15.8 points.
No Kentucky player made The Associated Press' first-team All-SEC list, but four - Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Hayes and Cliff Hawkins - made the second- and third-team lists.
"We're doing the little things you have to do to win at this time of year," Smith said.
One thing Kentucky did not do is cut down nets, leaving them intact after winning the SEC tournament.
"I guess we're just waiting for San Antonio and cut them down there. It will be better if we wait," Daniels said.
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