Kentucky's path: NCAA rout route Wildcats not forced to scratch out wins

March 30, 1993|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

Somewhere, The Baron must be smiling.

Adolph Rupp, the legendary coach, would be proud of the University of Kentucky team that his third successor, Rick Pitino, is preparing for the NCAA's Final Four this weekend.

The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season and the best of any team remaining in the tournament. They are not just winning, they are destroying opponents.

This is a young and hungry team -- guards Dale Brown and Junior Braddy are the only significant seniors -- that is on a mission after last season's 104-103, overtime defeat to Duke and Christian Laettner's miracle jumper in the East Regional final that was arguably the best college game ever played.

Since the NCAA tournament began, the Wildcats have blown out four teams by an average of 31 points. In the postseason -- including the Southeastern Conference tourney -- they have a 30.4 average winning margin in seven games.

To beat their offensive versatility, their unselfishness, their depth, their smothering press and their killer instinct simultaneously is a mighty order.

"I think they're the best team," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose Razorbacks were eliminated by North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals. "Kentucky has so many weapons, the whole package. It's the kind of team that can blow you out.

"Michigan may have the best talent, but I think they only play when they have to," said Richardson, one of only three coaches to beat the Wildcats this season. "And with a break here or there, we could have beaten North Carolina.

"Kentucky hits you with so many threes, you can be one down and then 15 down before you blink. They can rebound, play defense and they're playing great right now."

Arkansas gave Kentucky its toughest game of the past few weeks, falling, 92-81, in the SEC semifinals. The next night, Kentucky beat LSU, 82-65, for the conference title.

"The thing about Kentucky is they don't seem to be playing scared," LSU coach Dale Brown said yesterday. "They're very talented and they play very hard, and they seem to be loose, so they're at the top of their game.

"I have to compliment Rick for the way he's been able to keep that team together, particularly with the superstars he has. It's a tribute to him that he's been able to keep that team happy."

Florida State, with a well-devised game plan, gave the Wildcats fits for 18 minutes in the Southeast final Saturday and still found itself trailing, 54-46, at the half.

Then the Seminoles were hit by the effects of the Wildcats' pressure and their ability to depend on someone other than All-American Jamal Mashburn for scoring. It was another rout, 106-81.

Florida State succeeded in two of its three objectives -- to break the Kentucky press and hold down Mashburn (12 points). But it couldn't stop All-SEC point guard Travis Ford's bombing (14 second-half points) or penetration after the 5-9 guard survived first-half foul trouble.

That is the frustrating aspect about playing Kentucky. Plug one leak and another springs up somewhere else. It is a well-rounded, injury-free team with a huge arsenal.

As one banner proclaimed at the Southeast Regional: "It's Time To Feed The Cats."

"They're playing on a very high level," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy. "If they keep shooting three-pointers the way they're shooting them now. . . ."

That echoed the sentiments of Wake Forest guard Randolph Childress, whose team fell, 103-69, in the Southeast semifinals. A storm of three-pointers gave Kentucky a 60-26 halftime lead.

"I don't see anybody in the country beating Kentucky if they play the way they did tonight," Childress said at the time.

Starting from scratch

In May 1989, the NCAA hit Kentucky with three years' probation, a two-year ban from postseason tournaments, a one-year ban from television and limitations on scholarships. The laundry list of violations included financial and academic improprieties involving recruits.

Eddie Sutton had resigned as coach in March 1989, and Pitino took the job, leaving the New York Knicks even though he knew NCAA penalties were likely. When they were announced, the Wildcats had three games erased from their 1988 NCAA tournament record, including a 90-81 victory over Maryland.

Pitino had only eight scholarship players his first season, none taller than 6 feet 7. The Wildcats went 14-14, and that year lost their status as the winningest college basketball team. The Wildcats have 1,560 victories, second to North Carolina's 1,568.

Three years after Pitino arrived, Kentucky was in the East Regional final, losing the thriller to Duke. Of the top five players from last year's team, only Mashburn returned. The Wildcats reloaded immediately.

"It doesn't take long to get players at Kentucky," Richardson said. "If you can't get them there, you shouldn't be in coaching. That's one of the places you select instead of recruit."

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