The hoops world was surprised last spring when Rick Pitino, that
good ol' boy from New York City, decided to remain at his old
Kentucky home instead of heading east and accepting the jillion
dollars that the New Jersey Nets were throwing at him. After
all, the timing seemed perfect for him to move on. Last season,
in the seventh and last year of his Kentucky contract, he had
won the NCAA championship. Moreover, he would no longer have the
services of the leaders of that title team--Tony Delk, Walter
McCarty and Mark Pope, seniors all. And finally, Antoine Walker,
who was expected to be his best returning player, chose to enter
the NBA draft.
So why did Pitino decide to stay? For starters, his power and
popularity in Kentucky are approaching Ruppian proportions.
Also, he's making at least as much money as any college coach in
the country, and the college game, unlike the NBA, still belongs
to the coaches more than to the players. Oh, yeah, one more
thing: Despite their departed players, the Wildcats have enough
talent returning, and enough talent coming in, to make a serious
run at another championship.
The loss of Walker, who was chosen by the Boston Celtics with
the sixth pick in the draft, means that this season's star will
be Ron Mercer, the 6'7" sophomore forward who turned last
season's Final Four into his personal coming-out party. In 1995,
Mercer, who is from Nashville, had selected Kentucky over
Tennessee and Vanderbilt for three reasons: He wanted to play on
a championship team; he figured Pitino could prepare him for the
NBA; and he thought Kentucky's depth would eliminate the
pressure on him to become a standout immediately. He has
accomplished the first, and we should find out about the second
next season. As for the third...after scoring nine points in
only 16 minutes in the 81-74 semifinal win over UMass and
hanging 20 on Syracuse in the Wildcats' 76-67 victory in the
title game, Mercer can be hidden no longer.
Touted as the top high school player in the country in 1994-95,
Mercer (who averaged only 18.8 minutes per game last season)
will now be expected to fulfill that potential. Says senior
Derek Anderson, "Without Delk, McCarty, Walker and Pope, we all
have to do everything two or three notches better because the
talent we have is not as deep."
Anderson, who averaged 9.4 points per game last season (tops
among returnees), is slated to start at shooting guard. He'll
replace Delk, who is now suiting up for the NBA's Charlotte
Hornets. "I'll be a lot more explosive," says Anderson. "Tony
was a great shooter. I'll be more of an all-around player."
The point guard job will be shared by 6'2" senior Anthony Epps
and 6'2" sophomore Wayne Turner. Epps averaged 6.7 points and
4.9 assists per game last season, and Turner, who had been one
of the most highly sought recruits in the nation, averaged 4.5
points, 1.6 assists and only 13.1 minutes per game. It is Epps
who seems to be Pitino's chosen one: "The guy who's looking
great," he says, "the guy who's starting to believe he can do
it, is Anthony Epps." Senior Jeff Sheppard, a 6'3" guard who
averaged 5.5 points in just 12.8 minutes per game, will fill in
at both guard spots. It says something about the Wildcats that
Sheppard, fourth man on the backcourt depth chart, has NBA
Scott Padgett, a 6'9" sophomore, is back at small forward after
sitting out last season because he was academically ineligible.
Says Pitino, "He can bang and rebound, and he can score from
outside to bring the defense away from the basket. Physically,
we need him."
As Pitino sees it, Kentucky's greatest weakness is a lack of
muscle. "If Antoine Walker had stayed, I think we would have had
a very good shot at the title," he says. "But without him, how
do we score from the low post? That's our big question."
For some of that scoring underneath, the Wildcats will rely on
6'9" senior power forward Jared Prickett, who sat out last
season as a medical redshirt because of an injured left knee. Of
Prickett, Pitino says, "He dedicated himself more this summer
than he had in the three previous years. He's looking at his
teammates and seeing such great success. Envy is a good term to
use for him. I think he's envious of them, and he's saying, 'How
can I get that?'"
Prickett will be joined down low by 6'10" sophomore Nazr
Mohammed and 6'10" freshman Jamaal Magloire from Toronto, who
will replace the McCarty-Pope tandem at center. Mohammed, who
weighed close to 300 pounds at the beginning of last season, is
now down to a rock-hard 240. He's still something of a project,
but it should be noted that Kentucky's schedule isn't exactly
loaded with teams that have overpowering centers. So Mohammed
should be a mountain this season, allowing Magloire, who was one
of the nation's most coveted high school prospects, to gradually
evolve into a solid contributor, much as Mercer did last season.
Although these Wildcats don't appear as imposing as last year's,
their obsessive fans, in keeping with a long-standing tradition
of great expectations, are banking on another championship.
Consider 45-year-old Wally Clark, for example. He parked his
motor home outside Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 10 just so he
could be first in line when tickets went on sale 45 days later.
Not season tickets, mind you. Tickets to Big Blue Madness, the
first public practice, on Oct. 18. Crazy? Sure. But yet another
example of why Pitino decided to stay in Lexington.
--William F. Reed
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID COYLE COVER [Varies by region] Going For Two Ron Mercer leads Kentucky's quest for a second straight title
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Despite the talent drain, Anderson and the Cats can challenge for another title. [Derek Anderson in game]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Rick Pitino
Career record: 317-119 (14 seasons)
Record at Kentucky: 184-45 (seven seasons)
1995-96 record: 34-2 (final ranking: first)
SEC record: 16-0 (first in East)
PG *Anthony Epps, 6'2", Sr.
Fourth in SEC, with 4.9 assists per game
SG *Derek Anderson, 6'4", Sr.
Averaged 9.4 points, 19.5 minutes per game
SF Ron Mercer, 6'7", Soph.
Best sixth man in U.S. becomes All-America
PF Jared Prickett, 6'9", Sr.
Can he get a title of his own this season?
C Nazr Mohammed, 6'10", Soph.
11.5 rebounds per game on jayvee in '95-96
Nov. 28 vs. Syracuse (at Anchorage)
A rematch of last season's national title game
Dec. 31 at Louisville
Under Pitino, Kentucky is 5-2 against Bluegrass rival
Jan. 7 vs. Mississippi State
Dogs handed Cats second--and last--loss of '95-96
Feb. 4 at South Carolina
The SEC's old guard takes on the SEC's new guard
Feb. 9 vs. Villanova
Lexington's Wildcats are 3-0 against Philly's Wildcats
PLAYER TO WATCH
Power forward Jared Prickett watched last season's NCAA
championship game against Syracuse in mufti, from the front row
of the pep band. But as soon as the Wildcats won, there he was
on the floor, giving hugs to each of his teammates. He had
played in the first five games but was so badly hampered by a
sore left knee that he was granted a medical redshirt season. As
a freshman in 1992-93, Prickett had averaged 5.5 points and 4.6
rebounds; as a sophomore, he had increased his production to 8.2
points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds per game; but as a junior,
he had averaged just 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and
been demoted to the bench. This season Prickett is starting
again. And if Kentucky should win another national championship
in March, Prickett will be one of those getting the hugs.