INDIANAPOLIS -- His two-year, whirlwind tour of college basketball nearly done, Ron Mercer still remembers the recruiting pitch that made the difference.
Pitino: "Who else is on your list?"
Pitino: "Do you know [former Tennessee star] Allan Houston?"
Mercer: "Yes, he's one of my favorite players."
Pitino: "Do you remember what we did to him?"
Mercer: "Held him to four points."
Pitino: "That's how we're going to do you if you go to Tennessee."
"And when I looked at his face, he wasn't kidding, either," Mercer said yesterday to laughter.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mercer, the most celebrated high school player in the country in 1995, chose Kentucky.
The rest, as the story goes, is history. Championship history.
Mercer and Kentucky shoot for their second straight national championship tonight at the RCA Dome against the upstart Arizona Wildcats. A victory would be the perfect end to a marvelous two-year run in which Kentucky has won 69 of 75 games it has played.
It also would be one more national title than Mercer thought realistic when he was sold on Pitino's recruiting pitch.
"My main goal when I came to Kentucky was to win one national championship," he said. "I never thought I would be in position to win back-to-back championships.
"I want to be remembered not as an outstanding individual; I want people to say they remember me as being on both teams that won a national championship."
A 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, he may be remembered for both. He will join the NBA next season, most likely as a top-four pick, with a first-year salary between $1.642 million and $2.267 million.
It was a quick trip to fame and fortune for Mercer, who grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and played at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy. Pitino spoke eloquently about Mercer's development into a lottery pick in only two years.
"When I see Ron Mercer, I see a young man with terrific grace and athletic ability," Pitino said. "When he was in high school, he was just like that, except he shot a knuckleball. When he used to throw up a shot, it never rotated.
"I knew he'd have to work on that more than anything else. And today, he has excellent rotation on the ball. But he's also &L; become a better defensive player, a better passer and a much tougher individual."
As a highly touted recruit at Kentucky, Mercer wore the weight of high expectation with an earnestness that endeared him to his new teammates.
"I've seen a lot of guys coming out of high school with big reputations, and it takes a long time for them to adjust to playing at a place like Kentucky," senior Jared Prickett said. "They have to live up to those reputations and that's hard sometimes.
"Ron handled it as well as any player I've seen. He was one of the few players I've ever seen who was well-conditioned enough to go through our practices without any problems right from the start."
Mercer was a role player in his first season at Kentucky on a team with four NBA draft picks. He averaged a modest eight points last season, but came up big when the spotlight burned the hottest. He hit eight of 12 shots for a season-high 20 points in Kentucky's 76-67 championship game victory over Syracuse.
This season, minus last year's starring cast, expectations increased -- then increased again when Derek Anderson suffered a serious knee injury Jan. 18. Mercer responded dutifully with an 18.3 scoring average on 49.2 percent shooting. He also has averaged 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
And each step of the NCAA tournament ladder, he has been the focus of opposing coaches and players.
"To me, it's a challenge when other teams talk about me and figure they have to go out and stop me," he said. "[But] we have other guys on this team who are capable of playing. This is more than Ron Mercer on this team. We wouldn't have gotten to this point without the rest of the guys stepping up big."
Mercer had one of his rare off-games in Saturday's 78-69 semifinal win over Minnesota. He hit just seven of 21 shots for 19 points, and was plagued by leg cramps in a 34-minute performance.
"Ron's been playing a lot of minutes, and people have been hitting him, banging him, and he was physically a little whipped [Saturday]," Pitino said.
To give Mercer fresh legs and some much needed rest, Pitino said he would hold him out of yesterday's practice. All that is left now for Mercer is his quest for back-to-back titles.
If his two years have gone by quickly, he says he has the presence of mind to savor this moment.
"I've been able to appreciate [the two years] because I've learned a lot and won as well," Mercer said. "The main thing is to enjoy the moment, learn a lot and take it with me."
Pub Date: 3/31/97