'Cats out of the bag Kentucky: Four players who didn't play at all last season have given the defending NCAA champions the depth needed to make an unexpected run at another title.

March 28, 1997|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

For a variety of reasons, they were not part of Kentucky's championship run a year ago.

Jared Prickett was being redshirted because of a knee injury and an abundance of other, more talented frontcourt players. Scott Padgett had flunked out. Nazr Mohammed and Cameron Mills were on the school's junior varsity team.

When Kentucky meets Minnesota tomorrow in the second NCAA tournament semifinal at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, all four are expected to play. How big a role might determine whether the Wildcats will have a chance for a repeat come Monday night.

It was not supposed to turn out this way. The loss of four starters from last year's team, as well as star forward Derek Anderson in mid-January to a season-ending knee injury and reserve Allen Edwards with an ankle injury, had left Kentucky with eight scholarship players.

It also left Wildcats coach Rick Pitino with more than a few doubts.

"I'm very surprised at the way we developed," Pitino said this week of his team's sudden depth. "The preseason was a nightmare. Our expectations weren't very high. If you pick them one by one, this guy against that man, we're not going to fare too well."

Prickett, a 6-foot-9 forward, had been a wildly inconsistent player during his first three seasons before being redshirted last year after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Padgett, also 6-9, was an academic question mark. Mohammed was thought of as a project and Mills as a career walk-on.

So what happened?

After starting most of the first 19 games before a badly sprained ankle sidelined him for two weeks in January, Prickett has become comfortable in his role coming off the bench to back up Padgett. Tomorrow he will break Ralph Beard's school record by playing in his 140th game at Kentucky.

"Last year was really long I thought," Prickett said earlier in the season. "It was a tough situation watching the guys being out there on the court, mixing it up, doing everything physically. Just having to sit there, watching them, not being able to help the team out at all."

The most difficult moment came after the Wildcats beat Syracuse for the NCAA championship at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., Prickett had watched the game from a seat near the school band, and when he tried to get onto the floor to join his teammates in the post-game celebration, he was stopped by security.

But at least he was there. Padgett wasn't. After failing two courses and being declared academically ineligible before his freshman year, Padgett dropped out of Kentucky last year and returned to Louisville, where he worked for a couple of lawn-care companies.

"I was really immature when I came here," said Padgett, who returned last summer, regained his eligibility and reportedly had the team's highest grade-point average last fall. "My priority wasn't school. My priority was go out and have fun."

Since taking over for Anderson in the starting lineup Jan. 18, Padgett has averaged over 10 points a game. He had a career-high 24 points and five steals in a win over Tennessee, 16 points in a win over Vanderbilt, and averaged 11.5 points and five rebounds in wins over St. Joseph's and Utah in last week's West Regionals in San Jose, Calif.

But it is Mohammed and Mills who have been the biggest surprises for the Wildcats, and perhaps the biggest factors in the team's postseason survival.

"I won't say last year didn't bother me," said Mohammed, a 6-10 sophomore. "No one is going to be happy when you hear people say bad things about you and put you down. But I used that as an inspiration to try to do better so I could be a bigger part of the team."

Mohammed has become a force inside, with a team-leading six double doubles, and could wind up playing a lot against the Gophers. Not bad for a guy who has trimmed some 73 pounds of baby fat off what had been a 321-pound body as a high school senior.

"He had a lot of pride and felt it was a demotion," Pitino said of his decision to put Mohammed on the junior varsity last season. "I tried to tell him we were spending large amounts of money on him and that the whole program was set up for his development. He didn't want to hear it."

Said Mohammed, who backs up freshman Jamaal Magliore at center: "Looking back, it was a great thing for me. It helped me learn the system and Coach Pitino's basketball terminology. It helped me learn how to play defense."

Mills, a 6-3 junior guard, has gone from being a walk-on to a folk-hero in his hometown of Lexington, averaging just under 16 points in the NCAA tournament before being shut out against Utah in the West Regional final. He was put on scholarship this year.

"It's a remarkable thing to me," said Pitino. "You can't always evaluate players on how they play in practice. They don't play that well. But when the game starts, it's as if they've been playing 30 minutes a game."

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