EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For the past six months, they lived in Rick Pitino's "precious present," this group of marvelously talented athletes in Kentucky blue.
Against all odds, these interchangeable Wildcats grew to become one big cohesive family this season.
That accomplished, they then grew to become national champions.
The formal coronation took place Monday night in the Meadowlands, but the procession started some time ago, when Pitino first mapped out his route to the top.
This was a team built to the coach's specifications, choreographed to his vision. There was a premium on speed, quickness and athleticism, an emphasis on selflessness and teamwork.
In the end, after Kentucky's 76-67 victory over Syracuse in the NCAA final, it was Pitino's system that succeeded. It was his system that was vindicated against past NCAA tournament failures.
"I thought we were a great basketball team," Pitino said, "because we built it on quickness. We had three guards, two forwards and no center. People said you can't win like that."
Kentucky did win like that. It won with a rotation that went 10 deep, with its roster of McDonald's All-Americans, with a press and push style that was fast-forward all the way.
"I don't think you can win today unless you [go] up-tempo," he said. "Because I think the game today, from the NBA to college, is so sophisticated. Like, we'll put together a splice on the player, and notice 19 out of 23 times, he'll go left. And that's what everybody is doing.
"We're in the video age of just shutting down everybody's strength and weakness. And unless you create easy baskets for your team with full-court pressure, or half-court defense, or your break, you're going to get caught shooting a low percentage a lot."
"When you look at [past champions] Duke, [Las] Vegas, Kansas and UCLA -- one of the best fast-break teams I've seen -- and with the exception of Villanova, you need to be up-tempo. But you have to play great defense. And this up-tempo system is based on quickness, and that's why we built this thing this way."
It wasn't enough, of course, just to have the system. Pitino went out and recruited like a madman. He has the player of the year from five states and the runner-up from a sixth. This year, he lured McDonald's All-Americans Ron Mercer and Wayne Turner.
Monday night, Mercer -- a reserve forward in this stable of stars -- came off the bench to deliver a clutch performance. He hit eight of 12 shots for 20 points in 24 minutes, second to Tony Delk's 24 points. After averaging under 19 minutes a game during the season, Mercer was a hero on the final night of the season.
"Ron Mercer is a great basketball player," Pitino said. "And he's an even greater person because he could have complained, he could have wanted the instant gratification everybody expected of him, and he never did that.
"He came to Kentucky to be part of the team, to learn certain things, and now after his freshman year, he's one of the main reasons why we won a national championship."
That was, perhaps, Kentucky's biggest test this season, the test of staying together, of putting team ahead of self. If there were glitches, they were few in number and soft in volume.
"Some guys have gotten upset," Antoine Walker, Kentucky's most talented player, said before the final. "But nothing major. Allen Edwards [a 6-5 sophomore] would love to be playing more, but the opportunity is not there. Ron, Wayne Turner would love to play more. But if we didn't have that mentality, we wouldn't be where we are today."
If Pitino recruited like a madman, he motivated like a psychologist. For perspective, he referred often to a poem, "The Precious Present." And he used that 10-man rotation to its fullest to keep his players sharp and hungry.
On Monday night, the Wildcats deviated slightly from the system. Because Syracuse controlled the tempo with its 2-3 zone and deliberate offense, Pitino went with a seven-man rotation.
And Kentucky also went back to the three-point shot, the vehicle that launched the Pitino era seven years ago. Led by Delk's seven three-pointers that tied the championship game record, the Wildcats hit 12 of 27. Their marksmanship from the arc lent a certain symmetry to Monday's coronation.
"I'm very proud that we built this program in the first couple of years [with] the three, and we ended the national championship really winning it with the three," Pitino said.
Pub Date: 4/03/96