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Last week Kentucky coach Rick Pitino had a fine old time
renewing acquaintances with a couple of his former assistants,
Florida coach Billy Donovan and Georgia coach Tubby Smith.
Pitino hugged them, praised them, did everything but brush the
lint off their Pitino-like threads. Then, of course, he kicked
the bejesus out of their butts, just to show them--and anybody
else in the country who was paying attention--that the loss of
Kentucky's best player, swingman Derek Anderson, doesn't mean
the Wildcats should be counted out when they defend their
national title in March. As Donovan said of his old boss, "He's
got them playing with a tremendous sense of urgency."

Both Donovan, who played for Pitino at Providence and coached
under him for five years at Kentucky, and Smith, who was on
Kentucky's staff for two years, owe much to their Pitino
pedigrees. But the scores of last week's games--the Cats
dispatched Florida 92-65 on Jan. 29 in Gainesville and Georgia
82-57 last Saturday in Lexington--left neither coach much reason
to believe he could catch his mentor in the SEC anytime soon.

When the 6'4" Anderson went down with a torn anterior cruciate
ligament in his right knee during a win over Auburn on Jan. 18,
Kentucky fans from Ashland to Paducah went into a state of
shock. After all, while the Wildcats were racing to a 16-2
record and the nation's No. 3 ranking, the spindly-legged
Anderson averaged an SEC-best 18.6 points and made himself the
favorite for conference player of the year. His loss left Pitino
uncharacteristically gloomy.

"If 50 percent of the screening in our offense was directed at
[Anderson]," Pitino said at the time, "now it changes. It's like
it's October 15 again as far as our offensive execution is
concerned. What I told the team is, we must get 20 percent more
out of our other nine players, and even that's not going to make
up for his absence. What you're looking at, basically, is next
year's team."

But Pitino quickly backed off that kind of thinking. There will
be no next year for point guard Anthony Epps and power forward
Jared Prickett, both seniors, so Pitino rededicated himself, and
the team, to this season. Still, he is left with only nine
players, three of whom still have much to learn: A year ago
6'10" sophomore center Nazr Mohammed was on the jayvee team,
6'10" freshman center Jamaal Magloire was in high school in
Toronto, and 6'9" sophomore forward Scott Padgett was
academically ineligible.

For the Wildcats to have a chance of reaching the Final Four in
Indianapolis, sophomore forward Ron Mercer must realize the
potential that made him the nation's top prospect coming out of
high school in 1995. Mercer, a native of Nashville, spent that
year at Oak Hill Academy, the Virginia prep school that's known
for preparing high-profile prospects for college, both
academically and athletically. Early in the recruiting process
he narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt,
and he finally picked the Wildcats because, he says, "Kentucky
was the only one that had a chance to compete for the national
championship in the next two years. And it was a great
opportunity for me to grow slowly and learn gradually."

Mercer's freshman season couldn't have worked out better for
him. He got to learn from seniors Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and
Mark Pope and from sophomore star Antoine Walker, all four of
whom would be selected in the 1996 NBA draft. As the Wildcats
rolled to an NCAA title, Mercer played in all 36 games and
started a third of them. When he had an off night, it was no big
deal. He progressed slowly but steadily until the NCAA
tournament, where he made the all-Final Four team after scoring
a career-high 20 points in the Cats' 76-67 win over Syracuse in
the title game.

Yet Mercer has such a laid-back personality--"I'm kind of a
quiet person. I mind my own business," he says--that earlier
this season he was content to play second fiddle to the
effervescent Anderson. From the Wildcats' first game, the 6'7"
Mercer scored well, dropping in 30 points, for example, in a
101-87 win over Purdue on Dec. 3, but Pitino wasn't happy with
his rebounding and passing or with the paltry number of times he
went to the foul line. (Mercer hasn't shot more than six free
throws in a game all year.)

In mid-January, Pitino had a heart-to-heart chat with Mercer
about whether he should enter the NBA draft. "I told Ron I don't
think he's ready yet," says Pitino, "but most of the guys who
come out early aren't ready. If he's projected as a high
first-round pick, what are you going to do?"

The big question for Mercer is this: If the pros beckon with a
ton of money, can he afford to stick around and risk suffering
the same fate that befell Anderson? "I realize that anybody can
get hurt at any time, but Derek's injury made me think a little
bit," he says. "I'll go out and play hard and then take a look
at things after the season."

Mercer's performance since Anderson's injury has drawn mixed
reviews. In an 83-73 win over Arkansas on Jan. 26, he scored
only nine points and fouled out with five minutes left. However,
in last week's wins he showed signs of becoming the kind of
player who could make Kentucky a force in the NCAAs. He lit up
Florida for 18 points and Georgia for 20, and he worked hard to
do more than score. "He's trying to be more aggressive," Epps
says. "He's trying to rebound more, get more assists, do the
intangible things. But he's not going to yell at anybody. Ron's
going to lead by example."

The two wins improved the Wildcats' record without Anderson to
4-0, reason enough for optimism in the Bluegrass. What works
most in Kentucky's favor is that with the possible exception of
Kansas, there aren't any great teams this season. After the
Georgia game Smith said he believes the Cats can again make the
Final Four. "They still have so many weapons," Smith said.
"We've played some good teams--Maryland and some others--but no
team has been able to take us completely out of what we try to
do like Kentucky did. You hate to say that losing Derek has made
them a better team, but it looks to me like they're playing

Indeed, Pitino seems energized by the challenge of retooling his
defending champs. "I hope we have enough time," he said after
the Georgia game. "We're improving, but I feel there's an
hourglass sitting there, and the sand is running out." He's even
trying to use Anderson's dogged dedication to rehabilitating his
knee--which is coming along more quickly than expected after his
Jan. 22 surgery--to inspire the other players. Pitino's goal is
to have Anderson suit up and go through the pregame layup lines
at Kentucky's final home game, against South Carolina on March 2.

"This is no longer a great basketball team that's going to
overpower you," Pitino says. "But we can win the championship
again, and I'm very, very confident about that."

The national championship?

"That's what I was talking about," says Pitino, laughing. "We're
not going to get any parades for winning the SEC."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Mercer, once content to play in Anderson's shadow, must now run the Wildcats. [Ron Mercer in game]