Present with a past Kentucky: The Wildcats can't escape their storied history, but Rick Pitino wants them to play for the moment.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rick Pitino remembers walking out of his team's hotel in Springfield, Mass., one afternoon last November. The Kentucky Wildcats were on their way to play Maryland in the Tip-Off Classic, the opening game of the season.

The hotel lobby was filled with Kentucky fans, offering, uh, encouragement for their beloved 'Cats. "It wasn't 'Beat Maryland,' " recalled Pitino. "It was 'Win it all.' That's the way it's been for us the whole season."

Pitino was standing in a locker room at the Metrodome in Minneapolis late Saturday afternoon. His players were celebrating their 83-63 victory over Wake Forest in the NCAA's Midwest Regional final and a trip to the Final Four.

For Pitino, and even more so for the legions of fans who'll follow Kentucky (32-2) to East Rutherford, N.J., for Saturday night's matchup against Massachusetts (35-1) in the second semifinal game, this is familiar territory.

And that's where Pitino is concerned.

"I've read to them from a book called 'The Precious Present,' " said Pitino, 43, who'll be making his third appearance as a head coach at the Final Four, his second since coming to Lexington from the New York Knicks in 1989. "I want them to know from the past, but don't live in it. I want them to enjoy the present tense."

It is difficult for any of Pitino's players not to know about the storied, sometimes sullied, history of Kentucky basketball. About The Baron and Joe B. Hall. About "Rupp's Runts" and "The Immortals." About 11 Final Fours, five national championships and a couple of NCAA probations. About winning and sinning.

And, always, about the pressures and expectations that come with being a Wildcat. They have been around for more than half a century and have dulled only slightly, if at all, with the realization that other schools have had a greater run of success in the past 18 years.

That's the last time Kentucky won a national championship -- the Wildcats beat Duke in St. Louis -- and the program has endured more than its share of disappointment and embarrassment since. The 3-for-33 shooting half against Georgetown in the 1984 semifinals, the scandal that clouded Eddie Sutton's stay, the Christian Laettner prayer shot that won the 1992 East Regional final for Duke.

And then there is this year's team.

"I don't think it's a pressure situation for them," Bob Selter, a retired electrician from Louisville and a fan since the Rupp years, said as he rode on a chartered bus with his wife, Mary Ann, and other Kentucky fans to Saturday's regional final. "They handle it very well. If they play like they're capable of, they'll win."

It has been said that being a clear favorite going into the Final Four is both a blessing and a curse, that it means you have more talent and stand more to lose. Consider this: The Wildcats lost to the Minutemen by 10 early this season, yet will be favored by eight Saturday.

It was the same way back in 1978, when Kentucky steamrolled through most of its regular-season competition. That team, led by guards Kyle Macy and Jack Givens and a "Twin Towers" frontcourt featuring Rick Robey and Mike Phillips, lost just two games.

Of the five NCAA tournament games it played, only one was a blowout. Still, the expectations going into the Duke game almost became a burden for the Wildcats and Hall, Rupp's former assistant and beleaguered successor. The players didn't seem to be having fun, and were portrayed as a bunch of grim reapers.

"That didn't happen until the final game," recalled Macy, now a Lexington banker and the analyst on the team's radio and television broadcasts. "That's because we were seniors who'd come close before, and Duke was mostly freshmen and sophomores. We were expected to win."

So were a number of other teams that didn't. Houston and Phi Slamma Jamma, losing to North Carolina State in 1983; BTC defending national champion Georgetown, losing to Villanova two years later; run-it-up Oklahoma in 1988, losing to Kansas and Danny Manning; defending champion Nevada-Las Vegas, losing to Duke in 1991.

Flash forward to Minneapolis. Except for a second-half run by the Demon Deacons that turned a blowout into a romp -- down 28, Wake Forest never got closer than 11 -- Kentucky appeared to be having the same kind of fun that the overachieving 1992 team did in nearly reaching the Final Four.

Asked if Kentucky's season of blowouts has established an unfair standard to live up to, Anderson said, "It feels that way. Fans are saying, 'We should have won by more, 20 isn't enough.' I think it's a sign that we've spoiled them. They say they'll be upset if we lose, but I'll bet you we'll cry harder if we lose and be more excited if we win."

Pitino is trying his best to play down the favorite's role, pointing out that the only teams to beat Kentucky this season could still be standing in its way. The other team was Mississippi State, which beat the Wildcats in the SEC championship game and will face Syracuse in the first semifinal Saturday.

The first four games of the NCAA tournament reconfirmed what many believed since the beginning of the season: that the Wildcats had too much depth of talent not to win, that even the lack of a true point guard wouldn't be much of an obstacle for a team whose second unit might have made the Sweet 16 itself.

"They are scary," said Utah coach Rick Majerus after a 101-70 blowout loss to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional semifinal.

But they are not scared. If the 1978 team played not to lose, this team is playing strictly to win.

"Nobody's going to be more disappointed if we lose," said Pitino. "We just want to go out and have fun."

Kentucky at a glance

Location: Lexington, Ky.

Conference: Southeastern

Final Four history: 11th appearance, first since 1993, won national championships in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958 and 1978

Record: 32-2, 16-0 in SEC

How it got here: At-large bid. Beat San Jose State, 110-72; Virginia Tech, 84-60; Utah, 101-70; and Wake Forest, 83-63

Coach: Rick Pitino, 182-45 in seven seasons at Kentucky, 315-119 in 14 years overall

Top scorer: Tony Delk (18 ppg)

Top rebounder: Antoine Walker (8.7)

Top in assists: Anthony Epps (5.0)

Starters: Walter McCarty (11.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) at center, Walker (15.8 ppg) and Derek Anderson (9.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) at forward; Delk (4.2 apg) and Epps (8.2 ppg) at guard

Why Kentucky can win the national championship: The Wildcats will have special motivation, with the two teams that beat them during the regular season potentially standing in their way. Also, they have more depth than the Minutemen and also more talent than either Syracuse or Mississippi State.

What could stop the Wildcats: Marcus Camby. The UMass center did a number on Kentucky in their first meeting, and is tougher to double-team inside than Tim Duncan because of his outside shot. Should Kentucky meet up again with Mississippi State, a lot will depend on how the Bulldogs shoot. They were 17 of 49 in a 74-56 regular-season loss, 31-for-59 (including nine of 15) in an 84-73 win in the SEC tournament championship game.

Final Four

At East Rutherford, N.J.

Semifinals: Saturday

Mississippi State (26-7) vs. Syracuse (28-8), 5: 42 p.m.

Line: Miss. State by 3 1/2

Massachusetts (35-1) vs. Kentucky (32-2), 8: 12 p.m. approx.

Line: Kentucky by 8

Championship: Monday

Semifinal winners, 9: 22 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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