Kentucky Recipe for Success: Determination, Not Talent

Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus stared down at nothing, fought to keep his composure, sighed and then said softly: "I'm gonna congratulate Kentucky and go off into the night."

And so he did and he did.

It's a wonderful moment in athletics to get to the national championship game and it's a terrible moment to lose it, as the Utes did the collegiate basketball championship on March 30 to Kentucky, 78-69.

And the truth is, the entire nation was rooting for Utah, the underdogs with far more heart than talent. OK, take away maybe 1,000 moonshiners and miscellaneous assorted others in Kentucky who probably favored the 'Cats but that's it. The remaining 268 million US citizens wanted Utah.

After all, Utah had been in the finals four times, most recently 32 years ago; it won once, in 1944. Kentucky, on the other hand, has been to the finals 13 times - including the last three years in a row - and has won seven titles, most recently 1996. The Wildcats are the winningest team in college basketball history. Nobody ever favors Goliath over David.

Yet, while this is an understandable emotional response, it's not the fair response to Kentucky's truly stunning achievement. This in no way was just another routine title for Kentucky, where basketball is the state religion and the largest church in the commonwealth is The Church of Hoops and Dunks with 247 locations.

For openers, the 'Cats have a new coach this season, Orlando "Tubby" Smith, replacing the supremely popular and talented Rick Pitino, who bolted for the Celtics' cash after taking Kentucky to the championship game three times, including twice in a row the previous two seasons, winning and losing. Then there was the unspoken concern, one noted quickly by the populace: Smith is black. There are still those in Kentucky who secretly prefer the way Adolph Rupp did it, which is to say, with all white players.

Then one of the team's all-time best players, Ron Mercer, departed early for the pros. Then Smith brought along his son, Saul, a freshman, just to add another volatile ingredient to this pressure mix. Whereupon, all Smith did was arrive in Lexington with only winning on his mind and determination in his soul.

And away the 'Cats went, a decidedly non-flashy team with no stars. The case can be made they didn't even have many real good players. But Smith, who had been Georgia's coach, willed success. He made them play defense when they'd rather not. He made them stop dribbling when they'd rather. He insisted they do it his way when they'd rather not.

Visiting the other day about growing up as one of 17 children on a farm, Smith says he learned patience and perseverance ("Weeds have to be pulled") and he learned early on that "you can't make anything grow unless it rains." There were plenty of rain clouds over Lexington this year but Smith made sure the deluges made things grow.

Twelve times this season, the 'Cats trailed at halftime and 10 of those times, they came back to win. Here, Kentucky overcame a 10-point halftime deficit, the largest ever erased in this championship. Why? Smith insisted.

He almost got ignored. When the margin on Monday night (March 30) was hovering around 10 points, the feeling was pervasive that if Utah could get one more hoop, and at the most two, the Wildcats were ready to fold up like cheap paper fans. Utah was playing great, inspired basketball and Kentucky was playing crummy, uninspired basketball. Proof: The 'Cats were 0-for-6 on three-point tries the first half and were reduced to wringing their paws over their pitiful efforts to stop Utah star center Michael Doleac who had 12 easy points before the break and was playing like an unstoppable giant among timid elves.

Then in the second half, Kentucky went from ashes to glory, buttoning down Doleac who became fully ineffective the second 20 minutes and wearing out star Ute guard Andre Miller, who was reduced to looking like a punch-drunk fighter, willing in his mind to continue the fight but his body not cooperating.

So what we have is a Kentucky team not running on a talent overload, as it often does. Plus, it played a mediocre or worse game in the semis before getting past Stanford in overtime in a game the 'Cats richly deserved to lose, then played a darn average game in the finals.

And won.

Therein lies the point. A team facing all these hurdles to be able to somehow clear each one and win is a triumph of unspeakably grand dimension.

Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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