Wild about their 'Cats Kentucky in a state over basketball team

November 21, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They are in a state of preparedness deep in the heart of Bluegrass Country.

On a raw, blustery Friday night, a sellout crowd of 23,000 zealots turned up at magnificent Rupp Arena to see the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats play one of those tedious exhibition games -- and ended up watching an orgy of dunks.

It roared approval when Jeff Sheppard came off the bench to throw down a windmill slam.

It erupted again when Derek Anderson swiped the ball in the frontcourt and raced in for a behind-the-head jam.

When freshman sensation Ron Mercer just missed dunking an alley-oop pass, the crowd oohed and aahed. When he soared for a tomahawk jam, it leaped to its feet in delight. Bedlam reigned.

This, mind you, was for a game against Athletes in Action, on the night before Kentucky played its final football game of the season, against archrival Tennessee. The serious stuff will start on Friday, when the basketball team faces No. 15 Maryland in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. On this night, the Kentucky faithful were just warming up.


At halftime, the Wildcats' mascot climbed a ladder and pretended to cut down the net in a mock celebration of winning the national championship.

Come April, if all goes according to plan, Kentucky will be in a state of bliss.

The national championship is all anyone talks about here -- cab drivers, hotel attendants, man on the street -- except, of course, for the team itself.

"We all have in the back of our minds what we can accomplish this year," Sheppard said. "But we don't talk about it much.

"We're on a mission to have a great season. We've got to pull together, and everyone's got to sacrifice a little bit."

That's not just idle talk with Sheppard. The 6-foot-3 junior was the team's starting point guard a year ago. This season, to accommodate the influx of blue-chip talent brought in by coach Rick Pitino, he has been bumped to backup shooting guard.

"Starting is not that important to me," he said.

If Sheppard is the Wildcats' sixth man, he is, perhaps, the best sixth man in the country. In Friday's exhibition, he had three field goals -- all dunks -- and eight points, as Kentucky's ravenous full-court trap turned the game into a dunkathon.

From all appearances, Kentucky will field a veritable All-American team this year. McDonald's All-Americans, that is.

They have four altogether, including two from last season -- Mercer and Wayne Turner. They have two Converse All-Americans. Two Parade All-Americans.

Better yet, they have the player of the year from five states and the runner-up from a sixth.

L Nobody this side of the NBA has better talent than Kentucky.

Which begs the question: Given the talent he has amassed, can Pitino give his all-stars enough minutes to keep everyone happy?

Said Pitino: "It's not a problem, and we don't have as much talent as everybody is making out. Everybody has 13 scholarships. Everybody has the right to recruit outstanding players at all 13 positions.

"Yes, we do have outstanding depth. And there's very little difference between our seventh player and our fourth player. The 'but' part about that is there's not the [Jamal] Mashburns, there's not the Joe Smiths, there's not Jason Kidd -- there's not that type of player.

"So I think people are getting a little carried away with the whole process. Usually, it stems from Dick Vitale and works out."

Yet, when the issue of reduced playing time was put to Antoine Walker on media day a month ago, the 6-8 sophomore forward told a Lexington writer he wasn't thrilled with the concept.

When asked last week, Walker was singing a distinctly different tune.

"I think everybody on the team understands you've got to sacrifice your minutes, your points and stuff you would usually be doing on your own," said Walker, Mr. Basketball of Illinois two years ago and one of the Wildcats' McDonald's All-Americans.

In the wake of a disappointing loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Southeast Regional final last season and after the team's summer tour in Italy, Pitino has been retooling his lineup. He moved Tony Delk from shooting guard to point guard, Walker to power forward, Walter McCarty, 6-10, to center and put two starters from last year on the bench -- Sheppard and Mark Pope, 6-10.

Wary of the onslaught of national title predictions, Pitino said those lineup changes prove his contention that Kentucky is not as stocked as everyone says.

"Mercer is starting and Turner's playing a lot, so how difficult was it to crack the lineup?" he said. "Derek Anderson came in as a transfer, and he's starting. So how difficult was that?"

Mercer, the nation's top high school player a year ago, will play small forward. Anderson, a sleek 6-4 transfer from Ohio State, will start at shooting guard. Turner, meanwhile, figures to get a lot of minutes filling in for senior Delk, a shooter who has tried to make the switch to the point in the past.

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