COACH: RICK PITINO
ALL-AMERICA: TONY DELK (G)
DID YOU KNOW? KENTUCKY WON 27 CONSECUTIVE GAMES AND WENT 16-0 IN SEC PLAY.
CELEBRATION comes reluctantly to the people of Kentucky, who so surely expect NCAA titles. And the Wildcats won their sixth, with a 76-67 victory over Syracuse, despite the most daunting of expectations.
Or perhaps they won because of those expectations, for over the past year coach Rick Pitino played a masterly trick of psychology. Pitino's most brilliant spinmastering turned on a joke borne of the Wildcats' August trip to Italy, during which Pitino had had an audience with the pope. "When I met the pope, I leaned over and kissed his ring," was the way Pitino put it. "Then he looked at my hand to do the same, and he said, 'Oh, you don't have a ring.' " This kind of gag can become a weight unless you tell it on yourself.
For a team that was supposed to fall apart because of competing egos and clashing agendas, the season unfolded almost perfectly. Whenever ennui threatened to set in, the kvetchers on the talk shows found something with which to occupy themselves. First there was the refashioning of the sacred vestments of Kentucky basketball in (hellfire!) blue denim that looked dangerously like the shade popular at North Carolina. Next was the rendering of Pitino as "a man possessed" in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Someone even suggested that all the easy winning might not be such a good thing. "It's like you're having a great time in your life and someone asks, 'Any concerns that you're going to die someday?' " said Pitino at one point.
The Wildcats and Syracuse did not appear to be having such a great time on April 1. The Orangemen contributed 24 turnovers, and Kentucky laid on 45 bricks en route to the lowest shooting percentage (38.4%) for a championship-game victor in 33 years. Twice in the second half Syracuse drew within two points, but both times the Wildcats fired some combination of their many weapons—a Derek Anderson three-pointer, a Walter McCarty tip-in, acrobatics from rubber-legged freshman Ron Mercer—to open the gap anew. Mostly, however, it was guard Tony Delk's seven three-pointers that overcame the 29 points, 10 rebounds and headlong hustle of Syracuse star John Wallace and won for Delk the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award.
In the end a powerful Kentucky team won the championship, and a certain freshly adorned finger belonged to a man possessed—possessed of his first NCAA title.
You can pucker up now, Your Holiness.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 8, 1996