In all likelihood that improvement won't be enough, because the Cardinal's opponent on Saturday, Kentucky, is one of the few teams with front-court depth to rival Stanford's. The Wildcats start 6'11" Nazr Mohammed at center and then bring in 6'10" Jamaal Magloire, who's virtually as effective. Against Alabama in the SEC tournament they even got productive minutes from Michael Bradley, a 6'10" freshman, which caused Crimson Tide coach David Hobbs to do a double take. "I looked down the bench at my assistant who was supposed to prepare the scouting report," Hobbs said, "and asked, 'Who is this guy?' "
The beauty of this Kentucky team is all in the eye of the beholder. Coaches like Hobbs despair at the prospect of facing the Wildcats' waves of bodies. The Kentucky faithful are tougher to impress, especially after eight seasons of Rick Pitino's withering full-court pressure. Three losses at Rupp Arena have contributed to a sense that this year's team isn't as strong as recent editions. Indeed, during the SEC tournament a Lexington talk-radio caller said of the then 26-4 Cats, "I haven't given up on 'em yet."
"The expectations are both the best thing and the worst thing about Kentucky basketball," says guard Jeff Sheppard. "They drive you—but they can also drive you crazy."
In place of the all-court game that Pitino favored, the Wildcats now fall back into a stout half-court defense, a "ball-line" set designed to close down dribble penetration at all costs. "We used to get steals off our pressure," says forward Scott Padgett. "Now we're getting steals off our help."
While the agility of its big men makes Kentucky unique in the Final Four field, its 86-84 defeat of Duke on Sunday was an exercise in team resourcefulness. During an extraordinary five-minute stretch, the Wildcats made up a 17-point deficit, largely while its big men sat on the bench. With Padgett, Sheppard and swingman Heshimu Evans hunting shots off screens, and point guard Wayne Turner taking the smaller and slower Steve Wojciechowski off the dribble, Kentucky closed out the game with a 34-15 run. Echoing a practice drill called "24 in two," in which they try to make two dozen three-pointers in two minutes, the Wildcats sank six treys while closing that gap. In the most pointed example of how everyone can contribute, the three that gave Kentucky its first lead of the game came, with 2:15 to play, from Cameron Mills, a reserve who hadn't yet made a field goal in the tournament. "It's more fun when everyone gets a part of the action," guard Allen Edwards said afterward.
Nothing did more to cause the Wildcats to coalesce than a 73-64 home loss to Mississippi on Valentine's Day. In its aftermath Smith ordered 6 a.m. workouts to supplement Kentucky's usual afternoon sessions. A week later—having played better as a result of the morning practices—the players insisted that they continue.
The bond that has been forged among the Wildcats impressed one observer who knows the value of unity. "They have amazing camaraderie," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after losing on Sunday. "It wasn't one kid doing it for them. It was the Kentucky team. They wouldn't have won if they weren't together like they are."
It's terribly difficult not to pick North Carolina, the sole surviving No. 1 seed, to prevail on Monday night, regardless of whom the Tar Heels end up opposing. They are the only team that has a first-team All-America, and in Cota and Williams they have two dribble penetrators.
Yet the Wildcats are superb at stopping sallies into their defense. So we pick Kentucky, the early-rising, high-rising Wildcats, and not only because they are the hottest team. In a Final Four of dreamy teams, the Cats have enough players to field two teams, even as they're one.
No reason to give up on 'em yet.