Kentucky Can Play With North Carolina : Southeast: In fact, Smith says this is best Wildcat team he's seen.


It was an affront to bluegrass and the ghost of Adolph Rupp, but Rick Pitino figured he had no choice.

After one last tango in 1990, the young Kentucky coach ended his school's home-and-home series against North Carolina.

Kentucky, winner of five national championships, threw in the towel.

Kentucky, whose state motto is "Basketball Is Life," conceded defeat.

At the time, Pitino was giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a program tainted by scandal and NCAA probation.

"I made a mistake in that situation," Pitino said. "I felt, after looking at our people the first year, I said, 'Look, we can't play with them.' "

Five years later, the two winningest programs in college basketball reunite for today's Southeast Regional final at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

This time, Pitino's team can definitely play with them.

In fact, Kentucky (28-4) is favored to beat North Carolina (27-5) and book passage to Seattle for its 11th Final Four appearance.

The Wildcats have been tournament steamrollers, mashing three opponents by an average of 30.7 points.

Kentucky's play has backed Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith into four corners.

"This is the best Kentucky team I've seen," Smith said Friday. "And I've seen them all, haven't I?"

In his 34th season, Smith joked that he might revive his fabled (dreaded?) slow-down offense to keep starters fresh and prevent Kentucky from freely substituting with its nine-deep lineup.

That strategy has worked before. The last time the teams met in the NCAA tournament, in the 1977 East Regional final, Smith's Tar Heels played four corners in the second half and beat the Wildcats, 79-72.

Of course, there was no shot clock then.

Players in today's game are generally unmoved by the lore surrounding tipoff.

"The media and fans like to hype the past," Tar Heel guard Donald Williams said. "It's a new era. Kentucky is just in our way to making the Final Four."

For nostalgic geezers, though, Kentucky-North Carolina still makes hearts pitter-patter.

The Tar Heels' victory over Georgetown on Thursday was North Carolina's 1,625th, more than any other university.

But nipping right at the Heels' heels is . . . Kentucky, which won No. 1,616 against Arizona State. Kentucky holds the record for most NCAA tournament appearances, 37, to North Carolina's 29.

Pitino, relatively new to the lore, tried to pay Smith a compliment when he said the coach was "like a fine wine that keeps getting better with age."

Smith said later: "I guess that's a nice way to say a guy is old."

Seven times in the 1960s, Smith went head to head with Rupp, the late and legendary Kentucky coach. Smith's teams won five times.

Smith fondly recalled stealing a 1963 game from the Wildcats at Lexington, 68-66.

"Held the ball on them, made them chase us, and came out with an upset," Smith said. "Maybe we should think about that (again)."

Wildcat fans have not forgiven Smith for allegedly uttering an expletive at Kentucky's Rick Robey in the closing moments of the 1977 regional final. Smithniks say it never happened.

Smith should get the last laugh when he eclipses Rupp's record for victories. Rupp stands at 876, Smith has 829.

None of those victories benefits Smith today, though.

While blessed with probably the best starting five in the country--led by sophomores Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace--Smith wonders if his team can contend with Kentucky's depth.

What's more, three of Smith's five starters are injured. Point guard Jeff McInnis pulled a groin Thursday and didn't practice Friday. He's expected to give it a go today. Williams, the team's three-point specialist, has tendinitis in his left knee. Wallace, who scored 20 second-half points against Arizona State, is still walking around on a gimpy ankle.

Pitino acknowledges his team's depth advantage, but called Stackhouse and Wallace "the best two-punch in the country."

"I think they have 13 scholarship players," Pitino said. "If you're at North Carolina, you're going to be good. The difference is you're not going to be as good as Stackhouse and Wallace. Our (substitutes) are as good as the guys they come in for."

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