By Joe Cox
As Kentucky basketball winds down the back stretch of SEC play with its perfect season still intact, the forgotten UK team of 2002-03 awaits to see if their SEC run is equaled. Sure, the 1953-54 UK team is the lone Wildcat squad with a perfect season. But the 2003 team cobbled together a 19-0 mark in conference action, including three SEC tournament victories—a perfect season without equivalent in the last 60 years (aside from Florida’s 2014 team, which went through a 21-0 run).
The 2003 Wildcats are an interesting portrait of how the game has changed in the last dozen years. Senior guard Keith Bogans led the team, with fellow senior post players Marquis Estill and Jules Camara providing leadership. The rest of the team centered around juniors—guards Gerald Fitch, Antwain Barbour and Cliff Hawkins, and forward Erik Daniels. Only sophomore Chuck Hayes and little-used freshman Kelenna Azubuike provided young blood.
Tubby Smith’s squad lost pre-conference games to Virginia in the Maui Invitational, at home to Michigan State, and at Louisville. But in conference play, the breaks starting going to the ‘Cats. UK began conference play with a hard-fought 74-71 win in Knoxville, and rolled from there. They beat No. 24 Auburn by 16 points, and won at No. 15 Alabama by 17. On February 4th, top-ranked Florida came to Rupp Arena and was absolutely run off the floor by Kentucky. UK won 70-55, but even the final score was deceptive, as UK held a 29-point lead with 12½ minutes to play. Kentucky held the No. 1 team in the country to 34% shooting and forced 19 turnovers.
There were still tough opponents to take down. No. 20 Georgia lost at Rupp by 20 points. 19th ranked Mississippi State fell by eight points, and Georgia did likewise in their homecourt rematch. The regular season ended with No.2 Kentucky at No. 3 Florida, and UK held on for a 69-67 win, ending a perfect regular season. In New Orleans, UK rolled to an SEC Tournament title, finishing their 19-0 run with a 64-57 victory over Mississippi State.
The top-ranked Wildcats then steamed into the NCAA Tournament. But in a tough Sweet Sixteen win over Wisconsin, Bogans injured his right ankle. In the regional final, a hobbled Bogans valiantly fought his way to 15 points, but could not contend with Marquette and a previously semi-unknown star, Dwanye Wade, whose triple-double of 29 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds led the Golden Eagles to an 83-69 upset.
Because of the March upset, the 2003 Wildcats (32-4) are often forgotten in the list of unforgettable Kentucky teams. But a day of bad luck did not wipe out the squad’s stunning SEC perfection. While the 1996 and 2013 UK teams put together perfect SEC seasons, each lost in the SEC Tournament championship game. Perhaps UK’s fourth run at perfection will be the charm.
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For that matter, as time goes on, fewer and fewer Wildcat fans appreciate the hard work which coach Tubby Smith put in during his years in Lexington. In 10 seasons at UK, Smith won five SEC regular season titles, five SEC Tournament titles, and on five occasions, finished the season with a Top 10 ranked Wildcat team. Granted, his detractors are eager to point out that he only coached in one Final Four—but this was as much bad luck as anything. Smith’s legacy is the equal of Joe B. Hall’s. Both were solid program maintaining coaches who were never considered in the same breath as their predecessors—but who doggedly upheld Kentucky’s excellence. It is worth noting that both coaches eventually reluctantly handed off the program to lesser coaches who nearly wrecked it completely.
I look forward to the day when Tubby Smith is honored with a banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena. I wish him well in his current job, and don’t understand the animosity that still lingers from some of the Big Blue Nation.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports, 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at email@example.com.