LEXINGTON, K.Y. -- You don't play must-win games on the basketball court in December. You play them in March, deep in conference play when you are trying to get off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. But today is still an important day for Frank Haith's basketball team.
With losses to UConn and Ohio State, Miami (4-2) really has just two non-conference games left against power conference schools. The Wildcats (5-2) are one and St. John's, a team that has slipped down in the Big East, is the other. If UM loses today and goes 8-8 again in the ACC and I can see Dick Vitale and company questioning Miami's non-conference wins at the end of the season and the guys at the selection table passing on the Canes. Haith, who has never been to Rupp Arena, is trying to make sure his players don't gain a sense of pressure.
"It's an important game," Haith said. "It's a great opportunity to play on national TV against one of the premier programs in the country. That's how were going to attack it. Our guys are excited about this opportunity. I don't want our guys thinking if we don't get this game, this season is over. I want us to be excited about playing our best and letting the rest take care of itself."
Kentucky started the season with losses to VMI and No. 1 North Carolina, but the Wildcats have been coming on of late. They beat West Virginia and Kansas State -- two NCAA tournament teams from a year ago and will present plenty of problems for the Canes at Rupp Arena, a place that can get loud and can be tough to play in.
“Kentucky is obviously a tall task," Haith said. "They've won five in a row after getting off to a slow start. I look at their team and I see two outstanding players in [Patrick] Patterson and Jodie Meeks, outstanding scorers. But they've also have other great athletes.
"They’re a team that prides themselves on being able to turn you over. We got to do a good job handling the ball. And that's something we have not been able to do well at times this year. So, we got to be good ball handlers. We got to run better offense because they're going to pressure us. And that building is going to be another advantage for them too. I haven't played in that building or been in that building, but I know there going to have 24,000 and it's going to be a tough place. We got to be able to handle all that -- their defensive pressure -- with our ability to pass and handle the ball better."
Meeks, who will likely be guarded by James Dews, is averaging 24.6 points and 4.4 rebounds. “He's a really good scorer,” Haith said. “When I watch him on tape, he scores a lot of different ways. He puts the ball in whether its an offensive rebound, driving the ball, shooting the three, free throw line. We obviously don't want him to have as many touches. They're good in transition. Finding him early is going to be extremely important.”
Patterson, who will likely be guarded by Dwayne Collins and Jimmy Graham, averages 17.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and is shooting an eye-opening 74.6 percent from the floor. “He's a presence. Physically, he's strong. He's got great footwork. He does a great job of grabbing the basketball and scoring with two feet in the paint,” Haith said. “ He shoots free throws well too. He's a tough matchup. He's a McDonald's All-American and playing like it. He's had some injuries in the past year and he's starting to step up. Dwayne and Jimmy and our post guys will have their work cut out for them.”
> In case you missed it, I had a rather lengthy feature today on Jack McClinton, who will be the obvious storyline after what happened on Tuesday night against Ohio State. I've read and heard a lot of people make negative comments about McClinton for his slap of Anthony Crater. It's a shame most people across the country, who probably only knew of him for what he did against St. Mary's last year in the opening round of the tournament, could have that image of him now.
As for Haith, he said Thursday he reviewed the incident from Tuesday's game with Jack and told him he's going to have to do a better job controlling himself. Haith said he expects more opponents to try and get in Jack's head as the season progresses.
"That's the next step for Jack. When you have situations where someone employs that kind of tactic, you have to voice that to the official. You go back a couple plays there and you can see there is some aggressiveness. And on the play there if Jack gets hit in the face even if there was nothing before that, I don't think Jack would have reacted like that. It was a buildup of some things in the last couple of minutes before that happened. But obviously Jack is going to learn from this. He learned a valuable lesson the other night. He got kicked out of the game.
"I don't like our guys doing a lot of jawing and talking and sometimes that's how people play. You got to work through that. The game of basketball is a competitive sport and you can't react to that. You got to just play."
> By the way, last night I was hanging out in downtown Louisville with the Sun-Sentinel's Shandel Richardson and we had a good time at Wet Willie's. Comedian David Alan Grier was there hanging out. Grier, who is performing in Louisville this weekend, is a cool cat. He spent more than an hour mingling with people at the bar and dancing. It's cool to meet a guy who has his own TV show is so down to earth.