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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Davis' Loss Makes It Bittersweet 16

South Regional: From Pitino to Smith, Kentucky is still awesome, but in a calmer, bigger and more balanced way.

March 17, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Kentucky was a loud, bright cabaret show when Rick Pitino ran it, full of stars, wild three-point rhythms and oppressive, full-court trapping defense.

So many glittering future NBA players rotated through Lexington, sometimes it looked as if Pitino was running an off-handed tryout camp. When you look at his Boston Celtic squad that is loaded with Wildcats, maybe he was.

Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson left Kentucky after last season. Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and Jamal Mashburn left before that.

But most of all, most spotlighted and most credited, there was Pitino himself, the man who revived the hoary traditions of Kentucky basketball and brought back the 1996 national title--the school's sixth, and first since 1978--and another Final Four trip last season.

Then, like his star players before him, Pitino lit off to the NBA and a $7-million salary last spring.

Gone was Pitino's East Coast energy, and in came the calmer, more graceful Tubby Smith, from Georgia, Tulsa and a two-year assistant stint under Pitino at Kentucky.

Gone also was the Pitino star system.

But, as evidenced by two impressive victories in the South Regional's first and second rounds over South Carolina State and Saint Louis--and nine consecutive victories overall to get second-seeded Kentucky its third consecutive 30-plus-victory season--what has not been lost in the transition from Pitino to Smith is Kentucky's killer instinct.

If anything, the Wildcat team that faces sixth-seeded UCLA in Friday's third-round game at St. Petersburg, Fla., is less hectic than the last two Final Four teams, more organized, more carefully structured to get the ball inside and far less dependent on the press, the trap and the play of a single dominant player.

"I think in the past, under coach P., we always had that marquee player, that top-five draft pick that we relied on to do all the scoring," said senior swingman Allen Edwards. "With Coach Smith, we have more of a team balance.

"On different nights, there could be different players leading our team in scoring. I think under Coach Smith, it's more of a team ballclub right now."

Smith is familiar to the Bruins from his Tulsa team's 112-102 demolition of UCLA in the first round of the 1994 tournament, a game that prompted then-junior Ed O'Bannon to swear that he would never again be part of a Bruin team so ill-prepared on defense.

Eight Wildcats have led the team in scoring--which is every member of Smith's regular rotation, except his son, Saul, Turner's backup--and nobody averages more than 13.2 points a game.

Either by design or because Mercer left early and the talent level demanded it, Smith has dropped Pitino's 11-man press and platoon, but has spread the shot count evenly among his top players.

"Everyone talks about the fact that there isn't a marquee player on this team, there isn't that one NBA lottery pick," said jump-shot specialist Cameron Mills.

"There's not a whole lot of talent maybe wrapped up in one particular player, but there's probably more talent collectively on this team than there's been in the past eight or nine years, other than the national championship team, at Kentucky."

But there were some bumps in the transition. The Wildcats dropped three games before grumbling crowds at Rupp Arena to rivals Louisville, Florida and Mississippi, and finished 9-3 at home.

But in a strong indicator of tournament success, Kentucky was 11-0 on the road and 9-1 on neutral floors, the one defeat having been inflicted by defending national champion Arizona on Nov. 25 in Maui.

Said wing Jeff Sheppard, Kentucky's leading scorer, averaging 13.2 points a game: "We're not really going after them in the full court for the traps. We don't come with the waves of players that we used to have."

This is a team built unabashedly around a talented, deep and mobile front court of Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett and Jamal Magloire.

The 6-foot-10 Mohammed, who has lost about 65 pounds--he's down to 240--in the two years since he was a fat freshman, has become Kentucky's rising star. He plays an average of only 21 minutes but is shooting 61.2% and had a couple of big points-rebounds days late in conference play.

"My coaching style is a little different, and we play to our personnel," Smith said. "We have one of the best front courts in the country, and it's up to me to find a way to take advantage of that."

Said 6-9 Scott Padgett of Mohammed: "When he came in here, he had about an extra person on him. But he's really worked to lose all the weight that he did.

"When he first got to school, he didn't really look like much of a player. But you could see that he could always play offense. Once he lost all the weight and was able to run up and down the court, I knew he would be a good player.

"Now, he's still got all the offensive skills, but he's in shape to run the floor and play some defense now. And that's made him a real good player."

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