Kentucky hopes depth can cool off Carolina

March 25, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The would-be king was paying homage to the grizzled master yesterday.

"Coach [Dean] Smith, like wine, has gotten better with age," said Kentucky's Rick Pitino. "In the modern-day coaching world, I don't think [what Smith has done] will ever be duplicated."

Smith, the legendary 64-year-old coach of North Carolina, has 21 years and 546 wins on Pitino. Tonight, when North Carolina faces Kentucky in the Southeast Regional final at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, they'll match X's and O's for the right to go to the Final Four.

And even if first-seeded Kentucky (28-4) is a 2-1 favorite to capture the NCAA championship, Smith is not ready to pass any torch.

"What I saw on the tapes, that's a great college basketball team," Smith said of Kentucky. "It has no weakness. It only lost four games -- by one point to UCLA, two to Louisville, two to Arkansas and five to Mississippi State. They are as close to being an undefeated team as I've seen in the last 10 years. Rick's done a great job."

Then the punch line, slipped in almost as an afterthought.

"Certainly, I think we have a chance," Smith said, sounding the bugle charge.

Smith even chuckled at Pitino's fine wine line, saying, "I guess it's a nice way to say a guy's old."

Age will not decide tonight's marquee matchup. Defense almost certainly will. It will be Kentucky's interchangeable parts and deep bench against Carolina's sharpshooters.

Keep in mind that for all of the Wildcats' rave notices, Carolina, at 27-5, is only one game off Kentucky's pace. In forward Jerry Stackhouse, the Tar Heels have one more first-team All-American.

"We don't have any first-team All-Americans," Kentucky's Rodrick Rhodes said. "They have more great players. We're a group of players who want to win. We feel like we're underdogs."

Pitino has sold the Wildcats on a philosophy of selflessness this season. His fast break and his bench have worn opponents to a nub. The most recent was Arizona State, 97-73, in Thursday's Southeast semifinal.

"They're very big, they're strong, they're deep," said Arizona State's Bill Frieder. "They can wear you down."

Smith, however, wasn't making too much of the fatigue factor. "Sometimes," he said, "fatigue can be an attitude."

Carolina players weren't buying it, either.

"That's what kind of team they are," the Tar Heels' Donald Williams said. "They thrive off their depth. Once they go to the bench, they don't lose anything. But our guys are in good shape. . . . It won't be a problem. There's not but five players on the court at one time. I don't think it'll make a difference, especially with TV timeouts."

That's what Arizona State's Ron Riley said, too, and he'll be watching this one on TV.

Carolina may have the antidote, though. At 51.2 percent, the Tar Heels are the best shooting team left in the tournament. They have shot 50 percent in 19 of their 32 games. And they are 19-0 when they do.

"North Carolina is one of the best shooting teams I've seen in a while," Pitino said. "Two years ago, everybody was saying you had to zone Carolina because they weren't a good shooting team.

"We've got our work cut out for us . . . against a team that probably was ranked No. 1 the longest time this year. We have matchup problems because they play four guards, basically."

Kentucky has numbers, too, though. Andre Riddick and Walter McCarty are 6 feet 9, Rhodes 6-7, and then there are 6-10 Mark Pope and 6-8 Antoine Walker off the bench.

"They have a lot of players on the frontline capable of doing a lot of things," Stackhouse said. "We may be able to do some things to exploit their size."

For Kentucky, it's not only a matter of defense, but of destiny. Pitino took the Wildcats to the Final Four two years ago -- when Carolina won the title -- and lost to Michigan. He expects to finish the job some day, if not soon.

"To get back to the Final Four would be great," Pitino said. "The best part is to see these guys go through that experience. We're going to do it some day. Whether that day is now, I don't know. But we're going to do it."

No. 1 Kentucky (28-4) vs. (No. 2 North Carolina (27-5)

What: NCAA Southeast Regional final

Where: Birmingham (Ala.)-Jefferson Civic Center

When: Today, 6 p.m.

TV: Channels 13, 9

How they got here: Kentucky beat Arizona State, 97-73, and North Carolina defeated Georgetown, 74-64, in the regional semifinals.

Outlook: A fitting matchup between the two winningest teams in college basketball history (Carolina 1,625 victories, Kentucky 11 1,616). The key issues are whether Kentucky's deep bench and pressing defense can put Carolina in foul trouble, and whether Kentucky can harass Carolina's sharpshooters (hitting 51.2 percent for the season) into a poor night. Compounding the problem for Carolina is the health of guards Jeff McInnis (groin) and Donald Williams (tendinitis in his left knee). Kentucky has won its three tourney games by 46, 22 and 24 points. Carolina, by contrast, has won by 10, 22 and 10. Carolina's Rasheed Wallace, bothered by a sprained left ankle from the ACC tournament, appears healthy again. He dunked Georgetown for 22 points in the regional semifinal. His play inside against Kentucky's big front line will be critical.

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