The celebration finally is over at Kentucky, where coach Rick
Pitino is working feverishly to retool his defending national
champs. The talent is good enough for the Wildcats to make a
return trip to the Final Four--and a return trip to the RCA Dome
in Indianapolis, where their first post-title appearance was
spoiled by Clemson, 79-71, in overtime on Nov. 15. But much
depends on how well Pitino is able to plug the holes left by the
departures of Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and Mark
Pope, all vital cogs on last season's championship team.
Pitino worries least about replacing Delk, the team's leading
scorer last year and the Final Four MVP. Derek Anderson, a 6'4"
senior who started last season at small forward, should take
over for Delk quite nicely, as his 22 points against Clemson
attest. Pitino has such confidence in Anderson that he has
decided to redshirt 6'3" senior Jeff Sheppard instead of
relegating him to the role of Anderson's backup. The coach also
isn't worried about the point guard position, where 6'2" senior
Anthony Epps and 6'2" sophomore Wayne Turner return to give him
a solid one-two punch. But from there it gets tricky.
The Cats desperately need either 6'10" freshman Jamaal Magloire
or 6'10" sophomore Nazr Mohammed to step up and claim the
center's job. That would enable Pitino to play 6'9" senior Jared
Prickett at power forward and 6'7" sophomore Ron Mercer, who
this season should emerge as a star, at small forward. But if
both big guys continue to struggle, as they have so far, then
Pitino has headaches.
Against Clemson, for example, Pitino started Prickett at center
and 6'5" junior Allen Edwards at--gulp!--power forward. Magloire
played only seven ineffective minutes, and Mohammed didn't play
at all, even though the game went into OT. The results weren't
pretty. Prickett, Mercer, Edwards and Anderson all played at
least 40 minutes; one of the strengths of last year's title team
was that no one averaged more than 27 minutes. Furthermore,
Clemson beat the Cats on the boards 46-30 and defended the
perimeter so well that Kentucky canned only eight of its 25
three-pointers. "We can't rely on the perimeter game all year or
we'll get killed," says Anderson.
Inside help will arrive in the second semester, assuming 6'8"
banger Scott Padgett, who is academically ineligible, comes
back. And by the time the NCAAs roll around, Kentucky should
again be a force to contend with. "We're going to jell," says
Anderson. "It's just a matter of when. We're still the champs,
and we will be until somebody knocks us out of the tournament."
--WILLIAM F. REED