Soft roster leaves Kentucky searching for answers

ATHENS, Ga. -- In 10 seasons at Kentucky, basketball coach Tubby Smith's teams have won three out of every four games, even though the Wildcats often weren't the most talented team on the floor.

Smith's first team in 1997-98 went 35-4 and won the national championship after departed coach Rick Pitino left a stocked cupboard. But after that, Kentucky's talent level dropped dramatically. The school that has produced 46 All-Americans has had two under Smith's watch. The school that had three first-round picks in the 1997 NBA draft has had five since Smith replaced Pitino nearly a decade ago.

Even after winning the school's seventh national championship, Smith largely shied away from signing high-caliber players the Wildcats could have had. He focused more on lesser talented players that he could mold into a team and low-maintenance players that would fit his methodical, inside-outside offense.

Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans, the aforementioned All-Americans, were the exceptions. Nondescript players like
Lukasz Obrzut, Sheray Thomas and Bobby Perry became the norm.

For a while, Smith's blueprint for success seemed foolproof. Smith guided the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of the previous nine seasons, advancing to the Elite Eight four times.

But there were reasons for alarm last season, when the Wildcats went 22-13, the highest total of losses during Smith's tenure, including an 87-83 defeat to Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

It was the fourth time in seven seasons the Wildcats lost 10 games or more, earning Smith the moniker "10-loss Tubby." The Wildcats hadn't suffered a 10-loss season in a non-probation season since 1988-89 until Smith arrived.

But after Kentucky lost at Georgia 78-69 in overtime Wednesday night, the Bluegrass State might be wondering what "14-loss Tubby" or "15-loss Tubby" is going to feel like.

It was the second straight loss for the Wildcats, who had won 11 in a row before losing at home to Vanderbilt 72-67 last Saturday.

"It's tough to win in this conference, especially on the road," Smith said. "To let one get away from you, it definitely hurts. We have to learn how to finish."

The Wildcats couldn't finish against Georgia because the Bulldogs have better players. The No. 25 Wildcats squandered a 17-point lead in regulation in losing to Georgia for the first time in six meetings in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,523 at Stegeman Coliseum.

After trailing by 13 points at intermission, Georgia dominated the second half with 16 more rebounds than Kentucky, which had nine turnovers and shot only 9-for-27 after halftime.

"I thought we played well in the first half," Smith said. "You have to give Georgia credit. They came out in the second half ready to play. They out-toughed us and outfought us in every statistical category."

Smith need not look for answers any further than the players he is putting on the floor. Junior guard Joe Crawford, a former McDonald's All-American from Detroit, is Kentucky's best player. He scored 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting, but vanished when the Bulldogs turned a 52-38 deficit into a 63-58 lead late in the second half.

"They came out and started denying us the ball," Crawford said. "We weren't hungry enough to get open. It's my fault. I didn't work hard enough to get open. I've got to be more aggressive."

Junior center Randolph Morris, the team's other McDonald's All-American, scored 11 points on 3-for-6 shooting. Morris, a 6-foot-11 native of Atlanta, entered the NBA draft after his freshman season, but was allowed to return to school after he wasn't selected.

Morris came into the game averaging 16.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, but remains the subject of great frustration. Against Georgia, he didn't attempt a shot on Kentucky's first 18 possessions, or really demand the ball to take one. Worse, Morris had two rebounds in 29 minutes before fouling out with 47.2 seconds left to play in overtime.

The rest of the Wildcats' veterans are average players at best. Starters Ramel Bradley and Perry combined to score two points on 1-for-10 shooting. Freshman guard Derrick Jasper scored three points, and freshman Jodie Meeks, the team's most promising young player, had 10 points off the bench.

Thomas, a 6-8 senior from Montreal, scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting.

"We had the game won and we didn't finish the game," Crawford said. "We made stupid plays. We didn't stay aggressive on offense and didn't get good shots. We had that game won."

And the Wildcats, believe it or not, might have cost themselves an important victory as they try to make the NCAA Tournament once again. Kentucky still faces the meat of its schedule, with two games against both No. 1 Florida and Tennessee, along with road games at Arkansas, No. 12 Alabama and surging Vanderbilt, where the 'Cats have lost in three of the last five seasons.

The Wildcats (15-5, 4-2 SEC) haven't beaten any team of consequence since defeating Indiana 59-54 at Rupp Arena on Dec. 9 (unless you count Louisville), or really any formidable opponent before then (unless you count DePaul) for that matter.

The victory over the Hoosiers was the second of 11 straight wins for Kentucky, a streak that included victories over the likes of Santa Clara, UMass, Eastern Kentucky, Houston and four of the SEC's weaker teams.

The last two games proved that winning streak was as soft as Kentucky's roster.

"This is a tough loss but you know, you have to find a way to recover," Morris said. "You have to find a way and get past it. I think our future is still up in the air."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.