CHICAGO (AP) - Tubby Smith has a national title on his resume,
and you have to go back almost 15 years to find the last NCAA
tournament he's missed. His career winning percentage ranks up
there with Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins.
For Kentucky fans, though, it's not enough. Not even close.
Kentucky is the winningest team in college history, and
expectations there are simple: Contend for a national championship
every year. When it doesn't happen, things get ugly. Quickly.
After two straight seasons of double-digit losses, criticism of
Smith has gone from under-the-breath grumbling to an outright
"In this business or any business, you know you've got critics
in every form, at every level," Smith said Thursday. "The only
reason why you wouldn't have (critics) is if you go undefeated -
and probably many are going to find something to complain about
Smith got a vote of confidence earlier this week from athletic
director Mitch Barnhart. But the fact Barnhart even needed to give
one shows just how far out of favor Smith has fallen. The Wildcats
lost six of their last nine games, and there's been speculation for
weeks that Smith was on his way out.
If the eighth-seeded Wildcats (21-11) lose to No. 9 seed
Villanova (22-10) in the West Region on Friday, unhappy fans are
sure to be calling for Smith's job.
"I don't look at this year as anything but a success, to be
honest with you," Smith said. "I don't necessarily have to
reflect back on (past success), because I'm pretty secure and
confident in who I am and what we're capable of achieving."
After making a name for himself at Tulsa and Georgia, Smith
lived up to his considerable hype his first year in Kentucky,
leading the Wildcats to their seventh national title. For fans who
worried there'd be a drop-off with the departure of Rick Pitino,
who'd taken the Wildcats to the 1996 title and two other Final
Fours, it was reassurance that order would remain in the college
Two years later, the Wildcats lost 10 games. Sure, they also won
a share of yet another Southeastern Conference title. But this was
Kentucky, and Kentucky teams don't do double-digit losses.
Then it happened again the next year. And the year after that.
Smith and the Wildcats redeemed themselves in 2002-03, winning
the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and earning a No. 1
seed in the NCAA tournament. They made the regional finals in both
2003 and '05, only to be bounced out by a lesser team.
It was even worse last year, when the Wildcats failed to make it
past the first weekend.
"I don't think I could ever imagine what it's like in Kentucky,
to go through that," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You hear
all the things the media say. ... We heard that this is not a
typical Kentucky team. It is. It's a very good team and a very
"I feel for him," Wright said. "I don't think there's anybody
better in the country than Tubby Smith."
That Smith can coach isn't a question. He has a career winning
percentage of .728, 12th-best on the list of active coaches. He's
won 20 or more games in 14 straight seasons; only Lute Olson (20)
has done better among active coaches.
He continues to attract some of the best talent in the nation to
Kentucky, including Jodie Meeks, a freshman who's averaging 8.5
points and 21 minutes this season and had reached double figures in
Kentucky's last six games.
But parity has taken its toll across college basketball, and not
even Kentucky is immune. Florida, Tennessee, even lowly Vanderbilt
- they've all stepped it up, making the SEC even tougher than it
was just a few years ago.
Smith doesn't make it any easier on himself, playing the
toughest schedule in college basketball this year. Besides the
regular SEC grind, the Wildcats played UCLA, Memphis, North
Carolina, Louisville and Indiana.
"We realize the expectations the fans have and that we have,
just because of the tradition at Kentucky," said forward Bobby
Perry, something of an expert after four seasons in Lexington.
"Sometimes it gets tough, but we just block it out and say we're
out there having fun. We're out there playing basketball games.
"I'm not the person to decide if it's fair or not," Perry
added. "He's our coach, and we're going to support him."
Though Smith said Barnhart's support was nice - it helps fend
off other teams in recruiting, if nothing else - he didn't need it.
As much as he enjoys coaching, he knows the ugly side of the job.
If he ever needs a reminder, all he has to do is look around this
time of the year and see all of his friends who are out of jobs.
His players have been able to block it out, too. After all, they
knew what they were getting when they chose Kentucky.
They all did.
"It comes with the territory," Smith said. "I think they
understand playing Division I basketball and playing at Kentucky,
where you're going to be written about and talked about on a
regular basis, that you've got to be productive on a regular
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)