Barnhart: Wait, then decide
As Smith's critics grouse, AD says post-season could change minds
By Jerry Tipton
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart acknowledged the disappointment of this basketball season yesterday, but cautioned fans to consider the possibility of a post-season turnaround.
In a statement released late in the afternoon, Barnhart noted the importance of waiting "until the most critical part of the season is complete before reviewing the program."
His statement did not mention by name UK Coach Tubby Smith, who has been the target of fan criticism. The statement implied that Smith's performance as coach would be part of a post-season evaluation.
"Our fans' lofty expectations for this program, which I share, have not changed," Barnhart was quoted as saying. "However, history tells us that the college basketball season can change quite a bit between February and March. If the close games we've lost in February become victories during the tournaments, then this team has a chance to play up to its potential, which is what all of us as Wildcat fans want."
During his turn on a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference, Smith was philosophical about his critics.
"Well, they're always out there," he said. "The only way to keep them out of the way is to win. Losing four of five games doesn't help."
Kentucky (19-9) missed a golden opportunity for a season-changing victory at Vanderbilt on Sunday. The Cats never trailed until the final 25 seconds. Then they lost 67-65 in a virtual repeat of six earlier losses in which a failure to execute at crunch time made the difference.
"We're finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win," Smith said.
Barnhart's statement was not discussed on Smith's weekly radio show last night. The hourlong program included only two calls from listeners.
Heralded prospect Patrick Patterson, one of the most highly coveted recruits in UK basketball history, told the Herald-Leader that Smith was the "main reason" he was considering Kentucky. If UK were to dismiss Smith as coach, "I'd be very disappointed," Patterson said. "It'd affect my decision."
Asked whether he'd scratch UK from his list of six schools, Patterson said, "Probably."
Patterson, a 6-foot-8 power forward and McDonald's All-American from Huntington, W.Va., plans to narrow his list of schools to three by mid-March. He's also considering Duke, Florida, West Virginia, Wake Forest and Virginia. He plans to make his college choice April 3.
That's the same date UK is contractually obligated to pay Smith a $1,500,000 retention bonus.
Smith's contract runs through the 2010-11 season. His compensation through that period is $8.8 million.
If UK dismissed Smith as coach, the school would be obligated to pay him $1 million for each season remaining in the contract.
UK spokesman Scott Stricklin said rumors of boosters being approached to contribute to a buyout fund were "completely inaccurate."
Smith has been one of the most successful coaches in the history of the Southeastern Conference and college basketball. His 384 career victories rank fifth all-time for coaches in their first 16 seasons. His .700 winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament ranks sixth among active coaches.
In his 10 seasons for UK, Smith's teams have won or shared five regular-season league championships, seven divisional titles and five SEC Tournaments. The regular-season titles rank third all-time behind two former UK coaches, Adolph Rupp (27) and Joe B. Hall (eight). No SEC coach has won more divisional titles. Rick Pitino (UK) and Billy Donovan (Florida) are second with four each.
Smith's five SEC Tournament titles tie for second most with Pitino and Wimp Sanderson of Alabama. Rupp won 13 such championships.