Pressure cooks Ky.-Ariz. brew Expectations for titlists

'Cats' press for upstarts

March 31, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The circumstances going into tonight's NCAA tournament championship game at the RCA Dome are similar to what they were a year ago.

Kentucky is the favorite, having come through its regional as the top seed without a major scare. Arizona is the upstart, a fourth seed that seemingly has peaked at the right time.

The most obvious similarity in this matchup of Wildcats is one that can help both Kentucky (35-4) and Arizona (24-9). Though not quite the overwhelming favorite it was against Syracuse at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., last year, the defending national champion clearly is the one facing the pressure.

"I think that's what you want more than anything else," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, whose Wildcats will be looking to become the second team this decade to repeat, following Duke in 1992. "I think what drives and fuels us all is the pressure. And I've said that from Day One last year, when we were the favorites to win it all. We make it to be a good factor. We enjoy it very much. And we don't hide from it."

Conversely, the fact that few outside of Arizona's locker room and booster club gave the team much of a chance apparently helps the Other Wildcats.

Arizona -- a team without any seniors in the regular rotation and only one star, freshman point guard Mike Bibby -- is a loose group that its coach describes as "kind of wacky" and could be oblivious enough to the setting to give the often-maligned Lute Olson his first national championship.

"It's just a great thrill," said Olson, making the first appearance in a national championship game in a 24-year Division I coaching career that included three other trips to the Final Four and seven early-round flameouts. "You dream of the opportunity. It's new, but it's a nice feeling. I think it's especially nice this year in that I don't think a whole lot of people thought we'd be here, and that includes our great fans who really felt this might happen a year from now."

About the only pressure that seems to concern Olson and his players is the defensive heat Kentucky puts on its opponents, as witnessed by the 26 turnovers the Wildcats forced against normally sure-handed Minnesota in Saturday night's 78-69 victory in the semifinals. But the Other Wildcats look at Kentucky's frenetic style possibly playing into their hands.

"I've always felt that if somebody presses, we're going to go right at them," said Olson. "Otherwise, you let them take all kinds of gambles, and you don't burn them. We have not been a team that a lot of teams have chosen to press through the years. I think part of it is that other teams know we're not just going to get through the press and stop; we're going to the hole."

Said junior guard Miles Simon, who will have a great deal of ball-handling responsibility if, as expected, Kentucky traps Bibby: "I'm not scared of them. If we beat their press, we can get a lot of easy baskets."

Arizona will have to be more careful with the ball early on than it was against North Carolina in Saturday's 66-58 semifinal victory, when a number of turnovers led to dunks and a 15-4 Tar Heels lead. If the game is close down the stretch, the Other Wildcats will have to be more patient than they were in the final moments of regulation in an overtime win against Providence in the Southeast Regional final.

Kentucky is certainly aware that Arizona is susceptible to turnovers, but capable of scoring in transition. Pitino is particularly worried about the quickness of Arizona's frontcourt, both in getting up the floor and going to the offensive boards.

As is his nature, Pitino made it sound as if his Wildcats were getting ready to play against Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley rather than A. J. Bramlett and Bennett Davison.

"This is the quickest team I've seen maybe in some time," Pitino said in his team's dressing room Saturday night. "At this stage, every team you play has quick guards. But their big people are very quick, and that's something we don't have. We're going to have to do some things defensively."

Said fifth-year senior forward Jared Prickett: "Their quickness is a huge concern. A lot of teams might have underestimated it. Maybe Kansas did [in the Southeast Regional semifinals]. Being able to handle their quickness up front is the key for us going into this game."

A victory over Kentucky would make Arizona the lowest seed to win the title since Kansas, then seeded sixth, beat Oklahoma nine years ago, and the first to go through by beating three top seeds. Not that the Other Wildcats are students of recent NCAA tournament history.

Asked if he ever heard of "Danny and the Miracles," a name given to then-Jayhawks star Danny Manning and his teammates, Simon shrugged.

"Obviously, it's probably a singing group," Simon said. "I've never heard of them."

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