Kentucky, Utah base dreams in defensive reality For Wildcats, Utes, title game culminates two captivating runs

March 30, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- They disposed of the defending champion, then exposed the nation's top-ranked team. Courtesy of Utah, the final of the NCAA basketball tournament will be the first without a No. 1 seed since 1991, but there's a Goliath like no other in the path of this season's David.

"It is mind-boggling, almost incomprehensible, that you can play in three of these games consecutively," Utes coach Rick Majerus said of Kentucky. "It is the premier basketball program in the country. What they have done is unbelievable."

The majority of the 40,000 fans in the Alamodome tonight would say the same about Utah, Kentucky's surprise opponent in the NCAA championship game.

The Utes, the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, have made a captivating run that has included quips from Majerus, this year's Jim Valvano or Rollie Massimino. Utah dismantled Arizona and North Carolina with a commitment to defense matched only by, well, Kentucky.

The NBA took Keith Van Horn from the Utes and Rick Pitino from the Wildcats, but Utah can become the first titlist ever for the Western Athletic Conference, and Kentucky, under first-year coach Tubby Smith, can claim its second title in three years.

The Wildcats' third straight final is a feat accomplished only by Duke (1990-'92) since John Wooden closed up shop at UCLA.

Kentucky has 131 wins over the past four seasons, breaking the NCAA record for that time span set by the Wildcats in the late 1940s. This is the bluest of college basketball's blue bloods, but some perceptions have taken a beating this March, and more stereotypes could be turned on their heads tonight.

The Wildcats got a lift from a transfer, but Heshimu Evans played against Loyola in the Metro Atlantic, for goodness sakes. The prep All-Americans never stop parading into Lexington, Ky., but for all of the jokes Majerus makes about how hard it is to attract players to Salt Lake City, Utah might have more NBA prospects than Kentucky.

The Wildcats' top scorer, guard Jeff Sheppard, redshirted last year because there was too much talent in his way. He's the top option in a balanced attack, Kentucky's best counter to a Utah style that has broken down some stellar combinations, be they Mike Bibby-Miles Simon or Antawn Jamison-Shammond Williams.

Utah point guard Andre Miller has emerged as the star in this tournament, after Majerus, whose philosophy is summed up in one of his few rules: "To those who don't think that defense is important, you'll have the best seat, on the bench."

Majerus, Miller and company had a unique view of Kentucky's success the last few seasons. Last year, the Wildcats ousted the Utes in the Midwest Regional final. Two years ago, the Tony Delk-Antoine Walker team bombed Utah by 31 at their Sweet 16 step en route to the title.

"I don't think there's a psychological edge," Kentucky forward Scott Padgett said. "This is two totally different teams."

Kentucky and Utah have definitely had varied approaches to tip-off. The Utes led Arizona 17-8 and never looked back. They jumped on North Carolina 16-2 in Saturday's semifinals. The Wildcats, conversely, had to overcome 18- and 17-point deficits to beat top-seeded Duke in the South Regional final, and trailed Stanford 13-3 in their semifinal.

"It's vital that we don't get in that situation again," Kentucky forward Allen Edwards said. "When Utah gets a lead, it knows how to maintain it. We expended a lot of energy coming back in our last two games, and we have to come out with a better effort in the first half."

Both teams have finished superbly in the past few weeks, but previously they faced plenty of questions.

Utah won its first 18 games, but Majerus never stopped playing down his team, because the WAC hadn't put a school in the Final Four since 1996, and because seniors Hansen and center Michael Doleac had never been leaders before.

Kentucky, meanwhile, had to replace Pitino, Ron Mercer and two other starters. There was a December loss at Louisville that dented the Wildcats' pride, and two more at Rupp Arena, of all places. The players adjusted to Smith's style, and became less likely to launch a three-pointer and more reliant on containment instead of traps on defense.

"It took awhile for our guys to really understand our defensive principle," said Smith, who said that both finalists are here because of defense and rebounding. "Utah does a great job of boxing out. We really teach and work on that technique. I can tell that Utah does the same."

Utah has gotten raves for its defense, but Kentucky's field-goal percentage defense in the tournament is .361, compared to the Utes' .388. Duke was the only team to shoot better than 40 percent against the Wildcats in the tournament, and first-round foe San Francisco was the only team to do so against Utah.

Both teams practice a thousand and one variations, but their base defense is man-to-man, and it will make for a working man's final. Smith was born and raised in Southern Maryland, one of 17 children and the son of a man who drove a bus for 49 years. Majerus' father was a union official in Sheboygan, Wis.

"This is such a dream," Majerus said. "It's an absolutely unbelievable thing that we're here."

Believe it. Kentucky does.

Pub Date: 4/30/98

NCAA men's championship

Kentucky (34-4) vs. Utah (30-3)

Site: Alamodome, San Antonio

Time: 9: 18 tonight

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Kentucky by 3 1/2

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