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 Wild-cats 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 years 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 Razor-backs' 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 possible.
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.