Alphabet U. using every motivational tool for Kentucky

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 21, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Ron Hunter has pulled out every motivational trick in the book to get his team ready for No. 1 Kentucky.

The story of David and Goliath? You bet.

The movie ''Hoosiers''? Naturally.

Email newsletter signup

Hey, when you're the coach of a 16th-seeded, oddly named team - what does IUPUI stand for, anyway? - there's no use pulling any punches.

''Everything is fitting right into place,'' said Hunter, the exuberant, belly flopping coach of the Jaguars. ''Honestly, I think we're the best 16 seed they've had in this tournament for 10 years.''

Brave words, indeed, since IUPUI is about to take on the best team in the country - period.

Kentucky (29-3) hasn't lost since late December, reeling off 23 victories in a row. The Wildcats breezed through one of the country's toughest leagues with a perfect record and a tournament championship.

At this point, anything less than a trip to the Final Four would be a major upset. The 'Cats might have a hard time pronouncing IUPUI, but they shouldn't have any trouble winning Friday in the opening round of the Midwest Regional.

Hunter is undeterred.

''If you get caught up in our name and get caught up in thinking we're a small school and all that, you're going to be in trouble,'' he said.

Just to make sure the players share his positive approach, Hunter got a copy of the Bible and made copies of the section on David and Goliath - with a few alterations.

''I kind of changed the words. Of course, Goliath was Kentucky and David was IUPUI,'' he said sheepishly. ''We had the slingshot, but the rock was the basketball.''

If that wasn't enough, Hunter also had his team watch ''Hoosiers,'' the story of a small Indiana high school that won an improbable state championship in the 1950s.

''I had everything picked out,'' he said. ''We measured the court,'' just as Gene Hackman did in the movie.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith is confident, too. He has plenty of reason to feel good about his team beyond desperate motivational tactics.

The Wildcats aren't just beating teams - they're pummeling them. The average margin of victory during the nation's longest winning streak is 16.6 points. Only seven of the 23 games have been decided by fewer than 10 points. Just five teams during that span have managed to shoot 50 percent against Kentucky's ferocious, incessant defense.

No. 1? No doubt about it.

''I think we've proven during the course of the season, night in and night out, that we're deserving of this honor,'' Smith said. ''A lot of being No. 1 is people are really going to come with their best game. But we've seen that most of the year. We see that at Kentucky on a regular basis.''

Bring it on, IUPUI (20-13), which made the NCAAs for the first time by winning the Mid-Continent Conference tournament.

''You want your opponent to give his best effort,'' Smith continued, ''because that's what they're going to get from us every night.''

Also Friday, eighth-seeded Oregon (23-9) takes on No. 9 Utah (24-7) in another Midwest game. In the South Regional, third-seeded Xavier (25-5) plays No. 14 Troy State (26-5), making its first NCAA appearance. Finally, No. 6 seed Maryland, the defending national champion, faces No. 11 North Carolina-Wilmington (24-6).

Unlike Hunter, Utah coach Rick Majerus is hardly brimming with confidence.

''I hope we can win six, but I've probably got a better chance of being a biology teacher,'' said Majerus, who had just spoken of his science-impaired abilities in the classroom.

Majerus, in fact, thinks the tournament should be postponed while U.S. troops are at war in Iraq. But the games go on, and the Utes will go on without senior forward Britton Johnson, sidelined by infectious mononucleosis.

Johnson was examined again Wednesday, but doctors determined that an enlarged spleen would keep him off the court. A second-team All-Mountain West Conference selection, he averaged 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

''It's tough for him to go out this way,'' Majerus said. ''But when you put it in perspective to the war, if this is the worst thing that happens to him, then he'll have a very good life.''

Now, back to IUPUI. No, it's not an eye chart - it's a school that opened in 1969 just west of downtown Indianapolis.

The letters stand for Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. The school offers programs not available to students at the main campuses in Bloomington (Indiana) and West Lafayette (Purdue).

Hunter is proud to carry the IUPUI - try saying that fast three times - banner into the NCAA tournament.

''I think our name is fine,'' he said. ''Before coach (John) Wooden coached at UCLA, no one knew what that stood for, either.''

And if IUPUI should pull off the greatest upset in tournament history, he'll have to come up with something new to inspire his team.

Hey, does anyone have a copy of ''Rocky?''