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."