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BLUEGRASS STATE RED-HOT OVER KENTUCKY'S STUMBLING START

It's what Yankee fans must have gone through trying to watch Bob Geren or Horace Clarke. What the folks at Chicago's United Center are enduring watching the woeful unbelieva-Bulls. Same for diehards of the Montreal Canadiens and San Francisco 49ers.

Dying dynasties are tough to watch.

I'm not prepared to say this is the year the NCAA Tournament doesn't hear from Kentucky, but times are clearly uneasy in the Bluegrass State, even after Thursday's 60-58 win over No. 5 Michigan State. That's what happens when you drop out of the Top 25 and have a three-game losing streak for the first time in nearly 10 years.

Athletic Director C.M. Newton, who announced Wednesday that he will retire after this academic year, rebuilt the program after the scandal-laden period of the late 80s by hiring Rick Pitino as coach. Pitino brought the 'Cats back to their glory days with national titles in 1996 and 1998.

Kentucky was an overtime loser to Arizona in the '97 title game, preventing what could have been the sport's first three-peat since the UCLA glory days of the 70s.

Against that backdrop of success, current coach Tubby Smith is getting some savage treatment from UK fans upset by the program's 6-4 record.

Smith won that '98 title, beating Utah in San Antonio. He was a first-year success story and a win away from the Final Four last year before losing to Michigan State.

Still, the murmurs are that he won with Pitino's players. And that this team, truly Smith's first, isn't up to Kentucky standards.

There are seven freshmen or sophomores among Kentucky's top 10 players, but fans aren't cutting Smith much slack. Talk shows in Lexington and Louisville have ripped Smith and his son, Saul, a junior in his first year as the starting point guard. The undercurrent of racism is always prevalent because Smith is the first black coach in school history.

A black Lexington columnist wrote that Smith shouldn't take the Kentucky job in 1997 because the region wouldn't be able to deal with a black coach. Such talk has never really cooled. Three prominent Kentucky black activists actually met with Newton Wednesday to receive assurances the school supports Smith in the wake of mounting criticism. Guard J.P. Blevins, a Kentucky native, understands the fans' fuss.

"They're going to be mad when we're losing because they care so much about it," he said. ". . . They're going to be stressed out when we're losing. I'm suffering, too. This isn't easy for us either. We're dying just like them."

Smith, who doesn't comment on his faithful's fanaticism, has been playing a brutal schedule. Thursday's game was Kentucky's sixth against a ranked foe in nine days.

"We're going to benefit," Smith insisted. "That's the only way I can look at it now. But if I had to do it over, we probably wouldn't do this."

The Cats opened the season with wins over Penn, Utah and Maryland in the Preseason NIT, but lost the NIT final to Arizona to start a three-game slide that included loss to Dayton and Indiana. Blowout wins over North Carolina-Asheville and Louisville, sandwiched around a loss to Maryland in a rematch, haven't soothed the fans' anger.

Kentucky has shot better than 45 percent in just one game, with the starters hitting just over 28 percent from three-point range. The Wildcats have averaged nearly 16 turnovers per contest. That won't get it done against the kind of schedule UK plays.

Center Jamaal Magloire, the lone senior, had an abysmal start to his season and sat long stretches against Dayton after getting a technical foul. He wasn't ready for the NBA after last season, when he almost went into the draft. He's not ready now either.

"We're really searching for a go-to guy," Smith said. "Again, that's part of being a new team that's growing."

Smith heard loud boos from the Rupp Arena faithful when he put the starters back into the Asheville game with Kentucky up by 36 midway through second half and the reserves on a 17-4 run.

"It was pretty weird," said Saul Smith. "Hopefully, they were booing because they were just having so much fun watching those younger guys get out there and play so well. I'd hate to think they were booing us."

Saul Smith has not been able to pick up the slack of the graduated Wayne Turner at point guard; he's hitting just 39 percent from the field and is only 10 for 35 from three-point range.

Freshman guard Keith Bogans, a teammate of Niagara's Daryl Greene at DeMatha High, got his first start against Louisville and responded with 12 points. He's the most likely candidate to kick-start the attack on a regular basis.

But it's unrealistic to think freshmen, even the McDonald's All-American types Kentucky recruits, can carry the 'Cats in the SEC.

Kentucky appears to be no better than the third-best team in the East Division, behind Florida and Tennessee, and is probably only fourth overall in the SEC behind West top dog Auburn. In addition, Vanderbilt (8-1), Mississippi (10-1) and LSU (10-0) have all bolted to surprisingly fast starts and are conference sleepers.

Around the rim

Still no word from Temple about a possible redshirt for injured point guard Pepe Sanchez. The senior from Argentina is feverishly working out on an exercise bicycle to try to stay in shape while he's unable to run. Quipped coach John Chaney: "He's traveled to about 15 or 16 countries already." . . . La Salle's 6-2 start, its best in five years, has been tempered by star senior guard Donnie Carr's bout with pneumonia. He's missed the first two games of his career, including Wednesday's trip to Syracuse, and was hospitalized for a few days. Carr (20.3 ppg) is expected to be available for the Explorers' trip to San Francisco's Cable Car Classic next week. . . . Poor Jason Rowe. The Traditional graduate's senior year at Loyola (Md.) doesn't have much hope of being better than his first three. Rowe is being miscast as the off guard in the Greyhounds' offense and now Loyola's frontcourt is thin because 6-7 Clifford Strong has a torn knee ligament and will likely be red-shirted.

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