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At its best Kentucky doesn't merely play at another level, it plays another game. Conventional coaching strategy is to "work the ball" close to the basket on offense and then "fall back" on defense. The Wildcats' ability to invert that orthodoxy—to score from remote distances and press forward on defense—is virtually unique in the college game. It's as if coach Rick Pitino were some foot-stomping, adolescent pinball wizard who leans over the machine and works all the bumpers with a prodigy's feel. "Coach wants everybody to be a shooter," says 6'9" freshman Jared Prickett, who sprang for 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Seminoles. "If you're open and afraid to take the shot, that's worse than missing the shot."
When an ESPN production crew went to Lexington, Ky., last month to work on a half-hour retrospective about the Wildcats' overtime loss to Duke in last spring's East Regional final, Pitino refused to address the subject, nor would he allow his players to do so. As he explained, cordially, he didn't want to disturb his or his team's focus. Good move: Without exception, the Wildcats attribute their racing out to 14-0, 17-0, 29-9, 27-8 and 34-8 starts in five of their last seven games to an ability to lock in firmly on the task at hand. Kentucky didn't put Florida State away until the 30-minute mark, but that may have been because traffic kept the Wildcats from arriving at the Charlotte Coliseum until a half hour before tip-off.
If Michigan has a chronic weakness, it's a tendency to let its concentration wander. God help the Wolverines if they should fade out early in their game with Kentucky. Has any team spent more time trailing in four games it finally won than Michigan did in winning the West Regional? "We know we haven't played good basketball," said forward Chris Webber after the Wolverines had earned a place in the West final by beating George Washington 72-64. "We didn't look like Michigan; we looked like a bunch of junior high kids."
To shake his Wolverines out of their torpor on the eve of the final against Temple, coach Steve Fisher screened a video of Michigan's last game against the Owls. To see themselves so full of enthusiasm in that game, a first-round victory in last season's NCAA tournament, served as a panacea for whatever mid-life crisis these sophomores were going through. "You don't even need to say anything, Coach," said point guard Jalen Rose, who had been particularly lifeless of late, when the tape finished. "Let's just play."
Rose finally did, scoring 17 points without a turnover. Webber also came alive, especially after being on the receiving end of a halftime philippic from Fisher. As Michigan finally salted away its 77-72 victory, in a game the home folks in Seattle might have mistaken for another case of loggers preying on Owls, one sign augured well for the Wolverines' ability to check the Kentucky perimeter game: Michigan held Temple's superb guards, Rick Brunson, Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, to 40% shooting. "We've been put on a pedestal so much, analyzed so much, that we're not respected as individuals anymore," said Webber, sounding like someone who has had his fill of being billed as Fab. "When you're looked at as a novelty act or a traveling sideshow, it sort of gets to you. All the basketball gurus say we're the most underachieving basketball team they've ever seen. We'll be underdogs against Kentucky, and I say fine, that's as it should be. Nobody thought we'd get to the championship game last year. So what's new?"
Nothing's new. It's just the same old same old—Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina—and you can make a case for each of them. Before this year, the last time the Wolverines had suffered two one-point regular-season losses to Indiana was in 1989. Fisher coached Michigan to a title that year. Dean the Dude and his Carolina Cowpokes have so much size that Richardson was moved to say, "I've been to four rodeos, three cattle ropings and two calf castrations, and I've never seen anything like it." As for Kansas, the Jayhawks, as we know, spit in the river.
But how can you pick against the river itself? Two weeks ago this fearless forecaster filled out a draw sheet that had North Carolina winning it all, and then watched during the intervening fortnight as every choice save the Tar Heels and the Wildcats flamed out. But we've seen enough of Kentucky over the last four games to realize we should have stuck with SI's preseason pick of the Wildcats. North Carolina, with 1,568 victories, and Kentucky, with 1,560, have been doing a do-si-do at the top of the alltime NCAA victory list over the past few years. On Monday night look for the Wildcats to pick up a game in the standings.