MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Wayne Turner's time has come, and not a nanosecond too soon. Kentucky's basketball team was starting to run short on bodies and long on odds.
To run better, the Wildcats needed to run faster. They needed some fresh legs on their fast break, a fellow who could force the action rather than react to it. They needed a dribbling dervish like Wayne Turner, or someone set at a similar speed. To compensate for his rapidly diminishing depth, Wildcats coach Rick Pitino wanted to accelerate the pace of play.
Wayne Turner is his vehicle, and if the sophomore guard is not the ultimate driving machine, he will do for now.
''He's going to be a great point guard down the road,'' Pitino promised.
Two games since his promotion to the starting lineup, Turner has helped shake UK out of its creeping stodginess and back toward transition basketball. Pitino announced the lineup change after watching his team launch 29 three-point shots in last week's loss to South Carolina, and it has so far worked wonders.
The Wildcats overwhelmed Auburn in their Southeastern Conference Tournament opener Friday, 92-50, and they mauled Mississippi in Saturday's semifinals, 88-70. (Saturday's point total was the most scored against Ole Miss all season). UK did all this despite the prolonged absence of Derek Anderson, the late-breaking back problems of forward Allen Edwards, and Turner's tendency to run the fast break as a solo act.
''The tempo is a lot higher than it's been,'' UK guard Ron Mercer said Saturday. ''Wayne is more of an up-tempo point guard. Once he gets it, everybody is forced to catch up to him.''
Senior Anthony Epps has been an effective point guard for Pitino - the Wildcats won an NCAA Championship with him running the show last spring - but Turner gives UK another gear.
His penetrating drives produced 19 points and five assists against Auburn; 13 points and three assists against Mississippi; and will force Georgia coach Tubby Smith to revise his scouting report for today's tournament title game.
These are not the same 'Cats that twice stomped the Bulldogs during the regular season. With Wayne Turner handling the ball, and Epps reassigned as a shooting guard, they might be better. Certainly, they are quicker.
''I think that's the best I've seen them play, either in person or on television,'' Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said Friday. ''Their quickness to the ball, their quickness to the glass, their defense - it seemed like we were a step slow.''
Wayne Turner does that to people. Given a head of steam, he can make relatively swift opponents seem like so many stumps. It has been that way since he was about eight years old and blowing past the neighborhood kids back in Boston. One of his first coaches advised him to ''go to the rim,'' and Turner soon learned to drive the lane with impunity.
''That was my whole mentality,'' he said. ''If someone is in your face, you've got to go by him. I'm going to go at him. I'm trying to get him back on his heels. Like coach always says, 'Put him in jail.' ''
Turner's take-no-prisoners approach enabled him to average 36 points and 10 assists a game as a senior at Beaver Country Day. This despite a mediocre jump shot and a cast of talent-poor teammates.
''My first two years, I had some good players around me,'' he said. ''My last two years, I had to do everything. I had to score. I shot a whole lot of threes, and that's something I wasn't very good at. My strength is to drive and pull up for the short jump shot. My game is in the open court.''
Asked Saturday if he could beat most defenders with his first step, Turner mulled the question for a moment.
''Usually,'' he said, ''with the second.''