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Kentucky's path: NCAA rout route Wildcats not forced to scratch out wins

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Somewhere, The Baron must be smiling.

Adolph Rupp, the legendary coach, would be proud of the University of Kentucky team that his third successor, Rick Pitino, is preparing for the NCAA's Final Four this weekend.

The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season and the best of any team remaining in the tournament. They are not just winning, they are destroying opponents.

This is a young and hungry team -- guards Dale Brown and Junior Braddy are the only significant seniors -- that is on a mission after last season's 104-103, overtime defeat to Duke and Christian Laettner's miracle jumper in the East Regional final that was arguably the best college game ever played.

Since the NCAA tournament began, the Wildcats have blown out four teams by an average of 31 points. In the postseason -- including the Southeastern Conference tourney -- they have a 30.4 average winning margin in seven games.

To beat their offensive versatility, their unselfishness, their depth, their smothering press and their killer instinct simultaneously is a mighty order.

"I think they're the best team," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose Razorbacks were eliminated by North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals. "Kentucky has so many weapons, the whole package. It's the kind of team that can blow you out.

"Michigan may have the best talent, but I think they only play when they have to," said Richardson, one of only three coaches to beat the Wildcats this season. "And with a break here or there, we could have beaten North Carolina.

"Kentucky hits you with so many threes, you can be one down and then 15 down before you blink. They can rebound, play defense and they're playing great right now."

Arkansas gave Kentucky its toughest game of the past few weeks, falling, 92-81, in the SEC semifinals. The next night, Kentucky beat LSU, 82-65, for the conference title.

"The thing about Kentucky is they don't seem to be playing scared," LSU coach Dale Brown said yesterday. "They're very talented and they play very hard, and they seem to be loose, so they're at the top of their game.

"I have to compliment Rick for the way he's been able to keep that team together, particularly with the superstars he has. It's a tribute to him that he's been able to keep that team happy."

Florida State, with a well-devised game plan, gave the Wildcats fits for 18 minutes in the Southeast final Saturday and still found itself trailing, 54-46, at the half.

Then the Seminoles were hit by the effects of the Wildcats' pressure and their ability to depend on someone other than All-American Jamal Mashburn for scoring. It was another rout, 106-81.

Florida State succeeded in two of its three objectives -- to break the Kentucky press and hold down Mashburn (12 points). But it couldn't stop All-SEC point guard Travis Ford's bombing (14 second-half points) or penetration after the 5-9 guard survived first-half foul trouble.

That is the frustrating aspect about playing Kentucky. Plug one leak and another springs up somewhere else. It is a well-rounded, injury-free team with a huge arsenal.

As one banner proclaimed at the Southeast Regional: "It's Time To Feed The Cats."

"They're playing on a very high level," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy. "If they keep shooting three-pointers the way they're shooting them now. . . ."

That echoed the sentiments of Wake Forest guard Randolph Childress, whose team fell, 103-69, in the Southeast semifinals. A storm of three-pointers gave Kentucky a 60-26 halftime lead.

"I don't see anybody in the country beating Kentucky if they play the way they did tonight," Childress said at the time.

Starting from scratch

In May 1989, the NCAA hit Kentucky with three years' probation, a two-year ban from postseason tournaments, a one-year ban from television and limitations on scholarships. The laundry list of violations included financial and academic improprieties involving recruits.

Eddie Sutton had resigned as coach in March 1989, and Pitino took the job, leaving the New York Knicks even though he knew NCAA penalties were likely. When they were announced, the Wildcats had three games erased from their 1988 NCAA tournament record, including a 90-81 victory over Maryland.

Pitino had only eight scholarship players his first season, none taller than 6 feet 7. The Wildcats went 14-14, and that year lost their status as the winningest college basketball team. The Wildcats have 1,560 victories, second to North Carolina's 1,568.

Three years after Pitino arrived, Kentucky was in the East Regional final, losing the thriller to Duke. Of the top five players from last year's team, only Mashburn returned. The Wildcats reloaded immediately.

"It doesn't take long to get players at Kentucky," Richardson said. "If you can't get them there, you shouldn't be in coaching. That's one of the places you select instead of recruit."

This young Kentucky team surprised everyone by winning its first 11 games. The Wildcats' only losses this season were on the road -- at Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Tennessee -- and all three have been avenged. In the SEC tournament at Rupp Arena, Kentucky routed Tennessee, 101-40.

Freshmen Jared Prickett and Rodrick Rhodes have matured, the Wildcats have won 10 straight and Mashburn "has gotten his just rewards," Pitino said. "He has never had to suffer the penalties of probation because he signed with Kentucky."

Ford at the wheel

The brilliance of Mashburn notwithstanding, the key player for Kentucky is Ford, whose range on his shot "is so deep it's almost impossible to defend," according to Kennedy.

Ford is a transfer from Missouri who sat out last year with a knee injury. He is the catalyst both offensively and defensively, and he is tremendously effective now that he is driving the lane more often to complement his long-range shooting.

And Kentucky's bench is a killer. "The guys coming in are not that bad," Florida State's Doug Edwards said. "They were sticking shots like the first team. Our guys wore down, and it beat us."

North Carolina is the only team in the field that appears to have the size and depth to match the Wildcats. But "Kentucky's pressure is more upbeat, intense and aggressive," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom.

And it is constant. North Carolina will pull back to play a half-court defense at times. Kentucky keeps it up, wearing down opponents over 40 minutes.

Pitino talks about his team's having "no fear of failure and a high self-esteem" because the defense is always there to create opportunities if the offense is sputtering.

But Kentucky's greatest asset may be its ability to "go for the jugular," in Ford's words. "When we are blowing somebody out, we don't look for ways to make it close so we will know how to handle a close game," he said.

So far in the tournament, no one has been close to Kentucky.

Kentucky at a glance

Record: 30-3

Conference: Southeastern

Location: Lexington, Ky.

Enrollment: 22,000

Coach: Rick Pitino (228-104 in 11 years overall, 95-30 in four years at Kentucky)

Scoring leader: 6-8 F Jamal Mashburn (20.8)

Rebounding leader: Mashburn (8.4)

Assist leader: 5-9 G Travis Ford (4.8)

Last Final Four appearance: 1984 (lost to Georgetown in semifinals, 53-40)

National titles: 1948 (Adolph Rupp, coach), 1949 (Rupp), 1951 (Rupp), 1958 (Rupp), 1978 (Joe B. Hall)

1992-93 results

81 Wright St. 65 .. .. 94 at Arkansas 101

96 Ga. Tech 87 . .. .. 81 at Notre Dame 62

82 E. Kentucky 73 . .. 87 S. Carolina 66

88 at Louisville 68 .. 86 Georgia 70

108 Morehead 65 ... .. 77 at Tennessee 78

65 Miami, O. 49 ... .. 80 Auburn 78

89 Rutgers-x 67 ... .. 98 at Mississippi 66

86 at St. John's-x 77. 85 at Florida 77

81 Indiana 78 .. .. . 101 Tennessee-y 40

74 at Georgia 59 .. .. 92 Arkansas-y 81

84 Tennessee 70 ... .. 82 LSU-y 65

86 at Vanderbilt 101 . 96 Rider-z 52

73 at Alabama 59 .. .. 83 Utah-z 62

108 at S.Carolina 82 . 103 Wake Forest-z 69

105 LSU 67 .. .. .. . 106 Florida State-z 81

71 Florida 48 .. .. .. x-Holiday Festival

87 Miss. St. 63 ... .. y-SEC tournament

82 Vanderbilt 67 .. .. z-NCAA tourn.

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