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Monday, July 11, 2005
Morris making a mockery of Kentucky program

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

John Mason, meet Tubby Smith. You two have a lot in common.

Followers of the "Runaway Bride" saga -- and you're a sad lot, really -- know Mason. He's the prospective groom who refuses to bail on his fiancée, no matter how foolish she's made him look. Depending on your take, he's either the embodiment of noble perseverance, steadfast commitment and patient love, or he's a tool.

Randolph Morris
After the NBA bypassed him in the draft, Randolph Morris is asking for his old spot back.

Which brings us to Smith and his Runaway Center. (Who, like Jennifer Wilbanks, is from Georgia, where evasive interpersonal maneuvers must be in vogue.) Randolph Morris ran off to the NBA, faxed the news to Lexington, would not return phone calls and publicly embarrassed the coach of the Kentucky Wildcats for weeks. Then he embarrassed himself by going undrafted.

He did everything but cut his hair and climb on a Greyhound bus for New Mexico.

Now, with nowhere but the D-League to go, Morris wants to come back to Wildcat Lodge. And there is Tubby on the doorstep, waiting to give him an all-is-forgiven hug.

Next stop, a sit-down with Barbara Walters.

Tubby deserves one of two things: nomination for sainthood, or a GoldenPalace.com-style forehead tattoo that reads "SUCKER."

At this point, I'm leaning toward ink over halo.

Say this much about Tubby Smith: He never lets his ego get in the way of his dealings with players. He will let them make mistakes, let them err in judgment, let them occasionally act like divas or knuckleheads or selfish brats -- and he will not turn on them. He doesn't hold grudges or blast his guys in public. He's good that way.

Smith let Jamaal Magloire, Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans all declare prematurely for the NBA draft without a contrary word, patiently waiting for them to realize they should come back to school. All did, to the mutual benefit of the players and the program. (That trend came to a screeching halt this year, when both Kelenna Azubuike and Morris went early into the draft and stayed in -- only to be completely snubbed.)

Smith kept giving powerhouse center Jason Parker opportunities long after other coaches would have bounced him. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart finally stepped in and pulled the plug on Parker, booting him after a litany of academic and off-the-court issues.

Smith gave guard Gerald Fitch second, third and fourth chances during his four years at Kentucky to atone for one stupid stunt after another. Fitch repaid his coach with 1,391 career points and a leading role on the Cats' 27-5 team in 2003-04.

Smith bit his tongue in January when freshman Joe Crawford pulled a petulant desertion over playing time. When his transfer options narrowed and Kentucky wouldn't release him from his letter of intent, Crawford came slinking back to school. Tubby turned the doghouse into a luxury suite by returning Crawford to the rotation.

Smith has a seemingly limitless supply of patience -- even while coaching at the most impatient basketball program in America. Most of the time, that's a great character trait. Sometimes it's not.

Sometimes you wonder whether Smith still feels like he's coaching at Tulsa, and that every All-American he recruits might be his last.

This is one of those times. His forebearance during the Morris folderol goes beyond patience, to the verge of blind pursuit of a Final Four.

In sum, the Morris family has demonstrated no loyalty whatsoever to Kentucky basketball. It has treated one of the nation's Cadillac programs like a used Yugo, ready to abandon it as soon as a better ride comes along.

It's going to be awfully difficult to preach accountability to his players next fall when Smith has countenanced the return of a kid who never told anyone in Lexington personally that he was going pro -- and then refused to return the coach's phone calls for weeks. Between the Infamous Fax and the draft-night debacle, Morris consulted with Smith a total of zero times on his decision. Instead, Morris' dad, Ralph, intimated publicly that he thought little of Smith's coaching of his son.

(When your 270-pound son only grabs 4.2 rebounds per game despite getting all the minutes he can handle -- without fouling out -- Ralph might have a bit of a blind spot on that issue. But at least Randolph is more than making up for his lack of in-season headlines during this bizarre and endless process.)

In sum, the Morris family has demonstrated no loyalty whatsoever to Kentucky basketball. It has treated one of the nation's Cadillac programs like a used Yugo, ready to abandon it as soon as a better ride comes along.

Problem is, that better ride hasn't come along as fast as they thought. So like Crawford, Morris is returning to Lexington because he had nowhere else enticing to go.

That's not quite the team-first atmosphere coaches like to promote -- but it might be what the bottom line dictates. And for a coach who hasn't made a Final Four since 1998, the bottom line is easy to read these days.

When your four returning inside players averaged 8.7 points and 5.9 rebounds combined last year, even an underachieving Morris is clearly your best interior option. And when combined with Crawford, Patrick Sparks, Rajon Rondo and a deep supporting cast, Kentucky will be laden with potential. (That is, after Morris is eligible, following what is sure to be a suspension for a number of games by the NCAA to begin the season.)

Whether the return of Randolph was worth the blow to the program's pride is another story. And we won't know how that story turns out until next spring.

If the kid plays up to his pre-college hype and Kentucky makes a run at a national title, you can argue that the answer is yes. If not, then the Runaway Center has only succeeded in making Tubby Smith look like a sucker.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.