Wildcats Welcome A Familiar Face

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Arkansas coach John Pelphrey is expecting
neither boos nor sympathy Saturday when he returns to a familiar
Rupp Arena but an unfamiliar spot - the visitor's bench.
Pelphrey, who grew up in Paintsville, Ky., and was a fan
favorite during his four years playing for Kentucky, understands
the loyalties of one of the nation's most passionate fan bases.
"I think the people there will be warm toward me," said
Pelphrey, the first-year Razorbacks coach. "I don't think they are
going to wish me ill will 29 times a year, but I understand on this
particular day where their allegiance will be. I was a fan one
time, too, so I'm OK with that."
Two programs that were intense rivals during championship runs
in the 1990s have new coaches trying to resurrect their winning
ways.
Neither is currently a lock for the NCAA tournament, although
Arkansas (18-7, 7-4 Southeastern Conference) is just a game behind
Mississippi State in the West and considered a strong bubble team.
Kentucky (14-10, 8-3) is second in the East but three games behind
Tennessee and needing wins in a hurry.
Should Pelphrey get the victory over his alma mater, he'll tie
Eugene Lambert's 65-year record for wins by a first-year Arkansas
coach.
Pelphrey, whose No. 34 has been retired to the Rupp rafters, was
part of Rick Pitino's "Unforgettables" that fell to Christian
Laettner and Duke in the regional finals of the 1992 NCAA
tournament.
That was Pelphrey's last game as a Wildcat and was a painful and
unforgettable memory for Kentucky fans. Perhaps a more forgettable
- and more relevant event - was a few weeks earlier when Pelphrey's
Wildcats were clobbered by the Razorbacks 105-88 in Lexington when
both teams were ranked in the top 10.
Kentucky's own coach Billy Gillispie says he doesn't want to
hear about the past battles and has urged his players to focus on
the present.
"It'll be a game that won't be decided by history," Gillispie
said. "It'll be decided by the two teams that play and how they
perform."
Wildcats guards Joe Crawford and Derrick Jasper also declined to
open up about the split loyalties when Pelphrey returns to Rupp.
"He's a great guy, a great person," Jasper said of the
Razorbacks coach.
Pelphrey's road back to Rupp followed a successful tenure as a
head coach at South Alabama, including leading the team to the Sun
Belt regular season title last year. Before that, he was an
assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida and also an assistant to
Eddie Sutton, one of his former coaches at Kentucky, while at
Oklahoma State.
When speculation mounted that Kentucky was trying to woo Donovan
to become its new coach after the departure of Tubby Smith to
Minnesota, Pelphrey was being mentioned as a possible hire for the
two-time defending champion Gators.
None of that transpired, but Pelphrey still ended up back in the
SEC.
"I could envision him being a coach because he was a great
leader and a very, very bright basketball player," Pitino said.
"He is a terrific coach now but his star will rise when he gets
his own players and recruits his own types of kids for his own
style."
Pitino points out, however, that Pelphrey's current crop of
Razorbacks aren't too shabby either.
Senior Sonny Weems is averaging nearly 15 points a game, and
Patrick Beverley - last year's SEC freshman and newcomer of the
year - averages 12 points and 7 rebounds.
A victory over Kentucky, which hasn't yet lost a league game at
home, could propel Arkansas into the NCAA tournament field. The
Wildcats need a win even more to improve their chances, but
Gillispie realizes Saturday's opponent presents major matchup
problems.
"They do a really good job with their pressure after made
baskets and a really good job in the half court after they miss,"
he said.
As for Pelphrey, he says he expects to be overcome emotion once
he re-enters Rupp.
"I'm sure a lot of memories will come flooding back," Pelphrey
said. "I went in and out of the back of that building a lot as a
player. Once the game starts, I will focus on the task at hand."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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