INDIANAPOLIS -- When Tubby Smith replaced Rick Pitino as Kentucky's basketball coach, he changed the way the Wildcats recruited. Instead of going after big-time prospects who were apt to leave school after only two or three seasons, Smith recruited less-talented players and meshed them into a team.
While the Wildcats haven't had all-American players such as Jamal Mashburn, Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker, none of whom stayed four years at Kentucky, they've still found ways to win a lot of games during Smith's previous seven seasons. But this year's team, which plays No. 6 seed Utah in the semifinals of the Austin Region on Friday night, features two newcomers who are considered to be among the best freshmen in the country.
"I know people were doubting me," said Randolph Morris, pictured, who did not impress Kentucky fans as quickly as fellow heralded freshman Rajon Rondo.
(John Bazemore -- AP)
And if point guard Rajon Rondo and center Randolph Morris continue to develop their games so rapidly, they could be joining the former Kentucky stars in the NBA sooner rather than later. The rookies' success hasn't been surprising -- Morris and Rondo were two of the most highly regarded recruits to sign with Kentucky during Smith's tenure.
Rondo and Morris have played particularly well during No. 2 seed Kentucky's run into the round of 16. Rondo, a 6-foot-1 native of Louisville, scored 28 points combined in victories over No. 16 seed Eastern Kentucky and No. 7 seed Cincinnati at RCA Dome in Indianapolis last weekend. He made 8 of 12 shots and had 11 assists and seven steals in those games.
Morris, a 6-foot-10 native of Atlanta, had 11 points, 12 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in the Wildcats' 69-60 victory over Cincinnati. Two other freshmen -- guards Ramel Bradley of New York and Joe Crawford of Detroit -- also have played key roles for Kentucky this season.
"Our freshmen have stepped up huge," senior forward Chuck Hayes said. "Rajon and Randolph have played really, really big."
Rondo, an ultra-fast player with long arms and abnormally large and quick hands, averaged 21 points and 12 assists while playing at top-ranked Oak Hill Academy in Virginia last year. Smith hoped junior Patrick Sparks, who sat out last season after transferring from Western Kentucky, would replace Cliff Hawkins at point guard this season. But Sparks, who has attempted taken a team-high 205 three-point shots, too often called his own number rather than setting up plays for his teammates.
So Smith turned over the reins of his offense to Rondo, who says he isn't worried about his inexperience as the Wildcats attempt to advance to their first appearance in the Final Four since 1998, when they beat the Utes, 78-69, to win the national championship in Smith's first season.
Former Arizona guard Mike Bibby, who led the Wildcats to the 1997 national championship, "did it, so I guess you can win with a freshman point guard," Rondo said. "I don't feel any pressure."
Rondo also has replaced Hawkins' as the Wildcats' best defender. The freshman already has broken Kentucky's season record for steals and tied a school record with eight steals in a 94-78 win against Mississippi State on Feb. 19. Because of his long wing span and great anticipation, he has a team-high 232 deflections. In a 69-66 victory over Florida on Feb. 8, Rondo held Gators guard Anthony Roberson, one of the top scorers in the Southeastern Conference, without a point for more than 16 1/2 minutes.
But, just as importantly, Rondo has showed the maturity and patience to play point guard, especially for a demanding coach such as Smith. In the second half of the Cincinnati game, the Bearcats were cutting into Kentucky's lead with about 14 1/2 minutes left. Rondo drove into the lane, spun around, head-faked twice and drew a foul. Two possessions later, Rondo made the same play and got back to the foul line again.
"Rondo is an exciting point guard to watch," Hayes said. "I'm not surprised by anything he has done. Rajon is really good. The kid is really good. The kid is learning, right at the time we need him to."
So is Morris, who played at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Ga., and was close friends with another Atlanta high school star, Dwight Howard, who was the No. 1 pick by the Orlando Magic in last year's NBA draft. Morris nearly turned professional, too, but eventually chose Kentucky over Georgia Tech. His development hasn't been as rapid as Rondo's, causing fickle Kentucky fans to wonder whether the big man was too soft.
"I know people were doubting me," Morris said.
But against Cincinnati's bulging front line, which included senior Jason Maxiell, who will probably be a first-round pick in June's NBA draft, Morris more than held his own. When Kentucky needed a rebound in the final minutes, Morris grabbed them on four possessions. He scored a layup with less than four minutes left, after catching a pass that Rondo threw off the rim, to put the Wildcats ahead, 64-59.
"It takes time to develop," Smith said. "I've been happy with him. Our expectations are that he plays like this every night."