Thursday, January 23, 1997
Kentucky's talent pool still deep

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Derek Anderson's knee has left Kentucky out of joint. Out of sync. But not out of luck.

College basketball's reigning champions are less than they were a week ago, less than they were with Anderson's brilliance in the backcourt, and yet they remain much more than adequate.

Rick Pitino's Wildcats arrived at Riverfront Coliseum Wednesday night in need of revision, not rebuilding. Their 58-46 victory over Vanderbilt was a reminder to panic-prone fans that this is a program with plenty of replacement parts.

Derek Anderson will be missed, but he need not be mourned. Not so long as Ron Mercer is around. And Allen Edwards. And Scott Padgett. In their first game since Anderson's season-ending injury - a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee - the Wildcats found they had other players capable of putting the ball in the basket.

Not as well as Anderson, arguably. Not as often, perhaps. But often enough to inspire some qualified confidence. Yes, the NCAA Championship becomes a more elusive goal without Anderson's dynamic leadership. Yet in terms of talent, UK still ranks near the top.

Pitino's problems are of the kind Bill Gates faces every April 15th: an embarrassment of riches.

''The only thing that's lost is a 20-point scorer,'' said guard Anthony Epps. ''I still think we've got the talent to at least get to Indianapolis (for the Final Four), and to be a big threat.''

If these Wildcats do not win it all, they are still going to win most of them. Their half-court offense lacks cohesion in the immediate aftermath of Anderson's injury, and their aim Wednesday night was awful, and yet it was almost immaterial.

UK's depth and defensive pressure are such that the 'Cats would beat some schools if they shot with their eyes shut. They held Vanderbilt to a season-low 46 points Wednesday. Considering Anderson's loss, and the Commodores' quality, it was pretty impressive.

''The days of the 20-30 point blowouts will not be there,'' Pitino said, assessing the impact of Anderson's absence. ''(But) We're still Kentucky. We're not David and Vanderbilt's Goliath.''

Not by a longshot. (Or, for that matter, by a slingshot.) The Commodores shot 34 percent against UK's suffocating defensive pressure, frequently settling for bad shots as an alternative to allowing the shot clock to expire.

''It all starts with defense,'' Pitino said. ''We have played the last three games (defensively) as if we've not eaten in seven days.''

Pitino has sought to compensate for Anderson's scoring with renewed vigilance in other facets of the game. Among the most obvious differences Wednesday was Mercer's willingness to sacrifice his body in the scramble for loose balls.

''I think that's the first time since he's been here that he's dived after the ball,'' Epps said. ''Something like that can really get a team going when someone like Ron Mercer takes his tuxedo off and starts diving after the ball.''

Mercer acknowledged a more workmanlike quality to his game, previously distinguished by its elegance. He finished Wednesday's game with nine rebounds, three assists, a blocked shot and two steals in addition to 15 points.

''I guess I felt I had to go out and do some things because we didn't have Derek,'' he said. ''I have to do a little bit of everything (now).''

Most schools lose a player of Anderson's abilities and they start considering the advantages of the NIT. At UK, it is more a matter of juggling schedules than revising expectations.

Players whose eventual stardom is assured will be asked to carry a larger burden at an earlier stage of development. Though Pitino is trying not to put pressure on Mercer, he is expected to shift from the role of sidekick to star. Edwards has been promoted from sixth man to starter.

The show goes on, and the script is still strikingly familiar.

''Even though we lost D.A., we've still got a lot of good players,'' Edwards said. ''We've got players who would be go-to guys in other programs.''

Because Kentucky can no longer go to Derek Anderson does not mean it has gone to seed.