March 20, 1995

The list of transgressions that Kentucky coach Rick Pitino will
not tolerate on the basketball court is as long and involved as
the Emily Post book of etiquette, and there is always room for
expansion. So it was last Saturday, as his team was in the process
of setting up a fantasy final against Arkansas in the Southeastern
Conference tournament, that Pitino watched time stand still and
decided he could not do the same.

There were 17 minutes and 43 seconds left in the Wildcats'
semifinal game against Florida, and the shot clock atop Kentucky's
basket had frozen like Georgetown's Fred Brown in the 1982 NCAA
title game, forcing a delay of several minutes. Officials at the
Georgia Dome in Atlanta were slow to react to the crisis, and
Pitino, who is hyper enough under normal circumstances, paced back
and forth as if he were awaiting a doctor's diagnosis. He finally
snapped when the clock began ticking off seconds while a young
stadium worker tinkered with the device. ``Hey,'' Pitino yelled,
walking toward the basket and gesturing with both hands. Then
Pitino literally put his foot down, stomping one of his shiny
Guccis on the hardwood to grab the worker's attention. ``Hey!'' he
shrieked. ``Hey, you! It's working.''

The worker hurriedly descended from his perch, and Pitino returned
to the business at hand -- telling the officials, his players, his
assistants and even his opponents precisely what to do. The
world's most animated coach was the master of his universe in
Atlanta, upstaging defending national champion Arkansas. With
Pitino riding his players like a delirious drill sergeant every
step of the way, the Wildcats stormed through their first two
games in the SEC tournament and fought their way to a 95-93
overtime victory over the Razorbacks in Sunday's championship
game. The triumph ran Kentucky's record to 25-4 and earned
Pitino's team the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Regional of the NCAA
tournament, not to mention a great deal of overdue admiration.

``Hey, that was a serious team we just played,'' Arkansas forward
Corliss Williamson said afterward. ``You had two heavyweights
slugging it out, and those guys just wouldn't go down.'' If
Sunday's classic showdown revealed anything, it's that the SEC --
which sent two teams, Arkansas and Florida, to last year's Final
Four -- goes into this year's field with a one-two punch that
makes Cochran and Shapiro look like Beavis and Butthead.

Because it is the first NCAA champion to return its entire
starting lineup intact since UCLA in 1967-68, Arkansas has been
regarded as the conference's most potent force, a team waiting to
shake off a desultory regular season and romp through the NCAA
field. It could happen, but the Razorbacks (27-6), second seeds in
the Midwest Regional, enter this year's tournament with some
persistent worries. Conversely Kentucky, having lost its four
games by a total of 10 points, is peaking. The Wildcats play with
a full-court defensive ferocity at least the equal of Arkansas's,
and they appear to boast an even deeper bench.

Kentucky's victory on Sunday might not mean much in the end --
remember, the Wildcats bounced the Razorbacks from last year's SEC
tournament, then lost to Marquette in the second round of the
NCAAs while the Hogs went on to win it all -- but the way the Cats
won revealed a team of heroic fortitude. Never one for
understatement, Pitino called the victory ``the proudest moment of
my life.''

Kentucky was able to absorb the Razorbacks' best Sunday punch --
falling behind by 19 points in the first half and still rallying
to force overtime -- only to fall behind again by nine with 1:39
left. Then the Wildcats did the impossible by getting Arkansas
forward Scotty Thurman to stop trash-talking. Thurman, whose
last-second 25-footer hit the front of the rim, stood on the court
openmouthed, as if he couldn't believe the outcome. Neither could
some of the Kentucky players. ``Once you get down 20 to a team
like Arkansas, you think the game's over,'' conceded Wildcat guard
Anthony Epps, whose key steal late in overtime made the win

Epps is one of the key contributors on Pitino's deep and dangerous
bench. A 6'2" sophomore from the rural Kentucky town of Lebanon,
Epps spurned a free ride at Louisville to walk on at Kentucky,
which ultimately came through with a scholarship before his
freshman season when two other recruits chose to go elsewhere. He
even started the first six games this season at point guard before
Pitino switched to 6 4" sophomore Jeff Sheppard, a natural
shooting guard who now draws a disproportionate share of Pitino's,
um, attention. ``The main thing is to listen to what he's saying
and not get affected by all his yelling,'' Sheppard says.

That advice applies on a much larger scale to Wildcat forward
Rodrick Rhodes, who at times has seemed to have the entire
Bluegrass State yakking in his ear. Rhodes had the misfortune of
being anointed as the next Jamal Mashburn at Kentucky on the basis
of a lofty high school reputation and a couple of strong games
early in his freshman year. Since then Rhodes has often failed to
live up to that billing -- he has been benched in each of his
three seasons -- and has become the equivalent of a hit single on
Lexington sports-talk radio. He's discussed on the air constantly,
only most of the time he's getting trashed. And some hard-core
fans have opted to bypass that medium. After the Wildcats lost to
Louisville on New Year's Day, Rhodes returned home to find
numerous crank phone calls on his answering machine. ``You have to
understand that in Kentucky, the fans sleep, drink and eat
basketball,'' he says. With an emphasis on drink? ``Exactly.''

On Sunday, Rhodes may have provided the bourbon industry with
another windfall. Still regarded as a dangerous enough threat that
he had the ball on Kentucky's final possession, Rhodes drove the
lane and drew a foul with 1.3 seconds left in regulation. He went
to the line for two shots at winning the game and missed them
both. The distraught junior then spent the entire overtime period
slumped in his seat on the bench.

``I feel sorry for [Rhodes] and all these kids who come in with
all this hype,'' Pitino says. ``These kids have their tails kissed
from the seventh grade on. I think you've got to earn stardom, and
these kids never get a chance.'' At his postgame press conference,
however, Pitino couldn't resist giving the following plug to
freshman forward Antoine Walker, who was brilliant against
Arkansas and earned tournament MVP honors: ``He could be another
Jamal Mashburn.''

Pitino's equally loquacious counterpart, Arkansas coach Nolan
Richardson, also professes to disdain hype. It is Richardson's
stated belief that because the Razorbacks looked so scarily
dominant in last year's NCAA tournament, they get credit for
possessing far more talent than they actually have. ``We [looked]
better than we really were,'' Richardson says.

That represents quite a bit of revisionist thinking for the Hogs'
head man. After going on endlessly during the last Final Four
about how he and his team weren't getting their due, it now seems
Richardson wants us to believe that the Razorbacks got too much
respect last year.

Although Arkansas took a 10-game winning streak into the Kentucky
game, it has not performed up to expectations all season. The Hogs
came perilously close to losing their tournament opener to
Vanderbilt, squeaking by 73-72 last Friday. Their familiar fire
returned against Kentucky, but the question marks linger.

The biggest one might be 6'11" sophomore center Darnell Robinson,
who made an impact as a freshman but has struggled this season. By
Saturday night Robinson had become so upset with his reduced
playing time that he and his mother, Pamela Chaney, requested a
meeting with Richardson. Robinson, a big- time recruit who holds
the California prep career scoring record, told Richardson that he
will consider transferring after the season. ``I question my
decision [to come to Arkansas] every day,'' Robinson said a few
hours before the meeting. Richardson blames Robinson's struggles
on his weight -- ``He came back from the summer weighing 290
pounds,'' says Richardson, ``and he did an excellent job of
getting down to 255.'' Apparently yielding to the pressure,
however, Richardson inserted Robinson into the starting lineup
against Kentucky, and Robinson responded with his best game of the
season, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine boards.

It wasn't enough, and that has to put a dent in the immense
confidence of the Arkansas players, who do not buy their coach's
take on the team's talent level. ``Our mentality is that no team
deserves to be on the court with us,'' Williamson says. After
disposing of Alabama on Saturday, Williamson transferred those
thoughts to paper, borrowing a reporter's notebook to pen a letter
to SI: ``Dear Editor, I'm really mad at the way you've erased
Arkansas out of your mind. . . . Get ready to start writing more
articles, because you'll be hearing a lot more from Arkansas in
the coming weeks. Sincerely, Corliss Williamson.''

That may be -- as long as the Hogs aren't drowned out by the
constant cackling of Pitino. If you saw the man play himself in
the movie Blue Chips -- ``Great call, you're the best. That's why
you're a good official,'' he says to one ref in the film -- you
surely were entertained, but he is a better act in real life. He
regularly gives over-the-top performances, delivering lines with
the theatrical aplomb of Alec Baldwin and never appearing boorish
or insincere. So what if he never sits, if his chair is as useless
to him as a comb is to Sinead O'Connor? Right now Pitino is
sitting on something special, and unless you're one of the ones
being yelled at, it's a pleasure to watch him work.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Williamson (prone) and his mates watched in agony as Tony Delk and friends overcame a 19-point deficit. [Corliss Williamson and other Arkansas players watching thegame from the bench; Tony Delk driving the lane against Kentucky] PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER The Cats put the squeeze on Razorback guard Corey Beck. [Corey Beck surrounded by two Kentucky players]