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Myths and Truths: UK Player development

For a man whose tenure has been marked by spotty recruiting and a boatload of wins (yeah, yeah, here's where the negative Neds toss around Final Four appearances), Kentucky coach Tubby Smith has a remarkable track record in developing players, particularly on the defensive end.

One has only to look to Tubby's NBA players to see this trajectory. In addition to two-time second-team All-Defense forward Tayshaun Prince, whose prowess on the defensive end has earned him league-wide accolades, former UK stars Keith Bogans (Magic), Chuck Hayes (Rockets) and Kelenna Azubuike (Rockets) are all players valued principally for their defense.

While it's true that some might argue their offensive skills have not developed to the same extent, there are every year a bevy of talented offensive players who leave as college stars and become journeyman basketball vagabonds (Jerod Ward, Matt Walsh, The O'Bannons, an endless list ... ) because they lack the ability to do other things besides score.

That much overplayed adage says that 'Defense wins championships,' and yet at the next level, this seems abundantly true. Pat Riley's Miami Heat out-toughed the up-tempo Mavericks in June, and this after the Spurs and Pistons elbowed their way to titles over three years. All are marked by efficiency on the offensive end and defensive intensity.

Tubby Smith's defense-first approach does have its downsides, particularly as it pertains to recruiting and the average UK fan. Many high school kids, groomed these days on the AAU circuit where defense is seemingly as undervalued as IBM stock in 1975, are wont to truly dedicate themselves to defense, despite the fact that the vast majority of them will find it impossible to please their college coaches with one-on-one off-balance threepointers. It's also increasingly the case that Rival coaches negatively recruit Kentucky by talking about style of play, offense and tempo.

Tubby Smith's most recent NBA defector doesn't see it as a negative, however. Rajon Rondo, the new Celtics point guard drafted at No. 21 as the first point man taken, told a Celtics reporter what it took to play at UK:

Watching Rondo with the ball is certainly fun, but he may be even more dangerous as a defender. Those long arms and big hands that scouts drooled about all summer make him an intimidating man-to-man defender. He plays the up-in-your-jersey style of defense that all coaches love, and says his penchant for playing stifling defense came when he first arrived at Kentucky, when he realized that he'd have to earn his playing time from Tubby Smith by making his mark on defense.

For some fans, either too young or too stubborn to remember life before Rick Pitino's bombs away and full court scramble approach to the game, Smith's style is alternately plodding, frustrating or boring. But I would argue it's not the system that is inherently flawed, but the pieces. For this, I don't give Tubby a free pass, but that's a column for another time.

Personnel issues have been Tubby's downfall in recent seasons, as underperforming recruits have been mixed with underevaluated talent to make Tubby's sensational 2003 team seem light years gone.

In fact, it's amazing to me how few Uk fans want to remember what a joy it was to watch the 2003 Cats, led by Bogans and fellow defensive stalwarts Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels and Hayes, systematically dismantle teams. None of those players, with the possible exception of Bogans, would be considered offensively 'gifted,' and yet that team won 26 consecutive games, produced an undefeated SEC season (unprecedented 19-0, counting SEC tourney), an overall No. 1 NCAA seed and came within a Dwyane Wade triple-double of the ever-elusive Final Four. That was, even more than the 1998 title winners, the quintessential Tubby Smith team: rugged, great at passing and unselfish, not to mention plenty of fun to watch.

Smith determines his own destiny, of course. But while short-memoried Kentucky fans pull their hair out and genuflect on the 'status' of the UK program, I'll look forward to watching freshman Perry Stevenson  -- he of the 11 blocks a game in high school -- cover the weakside, watching 'Smooth' Bradley strip offensive guards of the ball at midcourt and quiety acccede that while it may not always be pretty, Tubby's system is efficient when run correctly.

And just ask the Celtics by January if they're displeased with the results.