Kentucky winning at team game College basketball: Stars Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker and coach Rick Pitino left for the NBA, but this year's unheralded Wildcats refused to be left behind, making the Final Four for the fourth time in six seasons.

March 27, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are a team without stars. No NBA lottery picks, as Antoine Walker was two years ago and Ron Mercer was last year; its coach is well-respected but not as renowned as Rick Pitino was when he got to Lexington or as revered as he became during his eight seasons there.

They are a team without a nickname. No "Fiddlin' Five" or "Fabulous Five." No "Rupp's Runts" or "Unforgettables." When it comes to the lore of Kentucky basketball, the Wildcats who will play Stanford in the NCAA semifinals tomorrow in San Antonio are as nondescript as any team in school history.

Yet they are similar in one significant regard: they are still playing, keeping up what has become a tradition in a state where those following the team are more zealots than mere fans, where the airwaves were filled with venom when Kentucky found itself at 22-4 earlier this season.

When asked last week if there was less pressure for a team that lost three starters, including Mercer and fellow first-round draft choice Derek Anderson, as well as Pitino from last year's national runners-up, senior guard Jeff Sheppard rolled his eyes in disbelief.

"Are you a native?" he asked. "You're not from Kentucky. The expectations are a national championship every year. We feel pressure and we put pressure on ourselves. The best thing about Kentucky are the expectations of the fans. And the worst thing are those expectations. They drive you, but they can also drive you crazy."

They have driven these Wildcats to 11 straight victories, the most recent being Sunday's dramatic 86-84 win over top-seeded Duke in the NCAA South Regional final. As a result, they have driven Kentucky to its third straight Final Four, its fourth in the past six years.

Just as the win over Duke made up for the now legendary last-second overtime loss to the Blue Devils in the 1992 East Regional final, two victories at the Alamodome will help make up for last year's championship game defeat to Arizona in Indianapolis.

When asked before the Duke game if he could face Kentucky fans back home if his team didn't win a national championship this year, first-year coach Tubby Smith joked, "No, I wouldn't be able to go back to Lexington. I won't go back."

If Smith has done anything over the last month, it's remove

whatever shred of doubt remained that he was the right man for what is probably the toughest coaching job in college basketball.

The doubt was still there after the Wildcats lost for the third time at home this season.

"I was probably more upset than the fans were," said Smith, a former Pitino assistant who came to Kentucky after six years as a head coach, the previous two at Georgia. "Maybe they [the players] felt a little pressure coming off last year. Maybe they were playing not to lose at home."

Since losing to Mississippi at Rupp Arena on Feb. 14, the Wildcats have won with a hero-by-committee approach. There have been games when junior center Nazr Mohammed has been dominant inside, and games when Sheppard or Scott Padgett has lit it up from the outside.

The constants have been Kentucky's defense, and the leadership of senior point guard Wayne Turner.

That combination proved difficult for Duke down the stretch, when the Blue Devils made only four of their last 19 shots and Turner led the comeback from a 17-point deficit.

"They have an amazing camaraderie," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Not one kid made any big plays -- it was the whole team. They wouldn't have won if they weren't together like they were."

Said Smith, "They value each other and care about each other so much. It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

Admittedly, that might have been the reason the Wildcats didn't win last season. Picked to repeat as national champion, Kentucky had enough talent to overcome a mid-season knee injury to Anderson and a late-season foot injury to Allen Edwards.

But it left much of the load on Mercer, who suffered from leg cramps in the team's semifinal win over Minnesota and finished with only nine points on 5-of-9 shooting in an 84-79 overtime loss to Arizona for the title. There was no other go-to guy, and the Wildcats learned from that defeat.

"A lot of people this year talked about us not being as good as Ron Mercer or Antoine Walker, but there's not many Ron Mercers or Antoine Walkers anywhere in college basketball," said Sheppard, who redshirted last season. "I think it's given a lot of guys the opportunity to step up."

Said Edwards, "Last year we relied on Ron a lot, maybe too much. This year's team relies on everybody."

Smith, who took Tulsa twice and Georgia once to the Sweet 16, is secure enough to admit that he has relied on players more experienced than he is in the white-hot setting of a regional final or, now, a Final Four. "They've carried me at times," he said last week.

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