EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's the Psychic Connection against some guys who weren't always on the same channel.
Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso are nearly always on the same wavelength in the Massachusetts backcourt. They think so much alike, they could be twins, and the fact is that they were born on the same day 21 years ago, in Puerto Rico.
While the Puerto Rican Express goes the distance for the Minutemen, Kentucky may have too many guards for its own good. Tony Delk is the only player who has started every game for the Wildcats, but the shooting guard began the season at the point. Two others have since shared that job, and two more with impeccable credentials begin the game on the bench.
Top-ranked UMass and favored Kentucky meet in a semifinal tonight (8: 12, Chs. 13, 9) at the Meadowlands, and both are here in part because they answered some nagging preseason questions about their backcourts. Were Padilla and Travieso good enough, and could they last? Were there enough minutes to satisfy all the Wildcats?
Delk, Kentucky's top scorer with a 17.5-point average, plays less than 26 minutes a game. Both Padilla and Travieso average more than 36 minutes, and yes, they already have survived Kentucky's relentless pressure once, in a 92-82 victory over the Wildcats Nov. 28.
"I think the depth thing works to our advantage," Travieso said. "They [Kentucky] sub so much, as soon as you get comfortable playing with somebody, someone else comes in."
The interplay between Padilla and Travieso has taken on a language of its own. Padilla's parents are deaf, so he grew up signing, and he and Travieso communicate through other movements. Besides winks and nods, they read the position of other players and act accordingly.
"Half of the time they're speaking Spanish to each other, and the rest of us don't know what they're talking about," UMass coach John Calipari said. "They were born on the same day, and they live together. They like each other, but it goes deeper than that. If you watch them on the court, they protect each other."
Same site, year later
They have no warm memories of the Meadowlands, where last year UMass lost in the East Region final to Oklahoma State. Padilla started 22 games as a sophomore, but missed that game with a sprained arch. Travieso didn't get any serious playing time last season until Mike Williams was dismissed by Calipari.
Travieso bears a strong resemblance to Gregory Hines, but there was little grace involved when he fell off an elevated interview platform in Atlanta last week. No problem. The following night, bruised back and all, he slowed Georgetown's Allen Iverson, the latest well-known scorer he has outplayed.
Instead of wearing down, Padilla and Travieso have gotten stronger. Travieso has made 40.2 percent of his three-pointers this season, but over his last five games that figure is 45.5. Padilla had a career-high 12 assists against Stanford in the second round, and five steals against both Arkansas and Georgetown.
Calipari talks of UMass' scruffy background, but Marcus Camby is the consensus Player of the Year, Dunbar's Donta Bright was the best player on the best high school team in the nation four years ago, and Dana Dingle was another big recruit.
The rags to riches stuff does apply, however, to Padilla and Travieso, who met in the United States, and McDonald's All-Americans. Jeff Sheppard, who spells Delk at shooting guard, was Mr. Basketball in Georgia. Allen Edwards, whom coach Rick Pitino unsuccessfully tried to talk into redshirting, played in some top national prep all-star games two years ago.
Anthony Epps is viewed as the ugly one in the litter, but even he was named Kentucky's top high school athlete three years ago, and it was his emergence at the point that ironed out the playing rotation for Pitino.
"We won our first two exhibition games, everything seemed fine," Pitino said. "Then we played Maryland and got down big, and it was obvious we were not playing the right people together. We made a change, put Epps at one [the point], and let Delk concentrate on scoring.
"It's been a great situation as far as cohesiveness. That's where we've evolved."
Actually, it wasn't that simple. First, Derek Anderson, a transfer who averaged 15.0 points for Ohio State two years ago, moved from shooting guard to small forward. Delk shifted to shooting guard. Epps has a 9-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the NCAA tournament, but at midseason, he came off the bench while Turner got eight starts.
No matter who's playing, Kentucky is worshipped in every hollow in the state, but the Puerto Rican Express has its own constituency.
An Hispanic network was all over Travieso yesterday, and the attention won't subside this summer, if he and Padilla remain together and play for Puerto Rico in the Olympics.
At East Rutherford, N.J. Semifinals: Today 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 7 1/2 Championship: Monday Semifinal winners, 22 p.m. TV: All games on chs. 13, 9
Massachusetts (35-1) vs. Kentucky (32-2)
What: NCAA semifinals
Where: Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Today, 8: 12 p.m. approximately
Line: Kentucky by 7 1/2
Key matchups: Player of the Year Marcus Camby dominated Kentucky in a 92-82 UMass win on Nov. 28, when he collected 32 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Walter McCarty and Mark Pope, who alternate in the middle for the Wildcats, remember that embarrassment. UMass' thin backcourt has beaten all comers, but Dana Dingle must stop Antoine Walker at power forward.
What wins for Kentucky: Coach Rick Pitino can shuffle players until he finds the hot hand. Camby has been in foul trouble throughout the NCAA tournament. UMass has beaten lesser teams with his playing time being limited, but the Wildcats never let up.
What wins for UMass: Camby has allowed the Minutemen to stretch their defense on the perimeter. Kentucky has made 39.6 percent of its three-pointers, but UMass has limited opponents to 29.7. Once by the Wildcats' press, the Minutemen must keep attacking.
Bottom line: Kentucky's bench averages 31.7 points, UMass' 10.4. The No. 2 Wildcats have plenty of fouls to give, but do they want to keep sending the top-ranked Minutemen to the line?
Pub Date: 3/30/96