The first thing the University of Kentucky basketball team does in practice is shoot free throws. The free throws are counted, hits and misses, by student managers who compile the shooting percentages. Those percentages are passed on to Joe B. Hall, the coach, who saw a manager bringing them to him this afternoon.

"Oh, no keep that paper away from me," Hall said.

The paper showed that Kentucky's 15 players made 118 of 139 free throws. That is 84.9 percent.

"We're shooting soooo bad," Hall said.

Since when is 84.9 percent bad?

"We're shooting 89 percent for the year in these practices," the coach said.

What Joe Beasman Hall wants is perfection. Two seasons ago his Kentucky team won the NCAA championship and this time it has as good a chance as any of the remaining 16 teams to win it again. With Purdue against Indiana in Thursday's first game of the Mideast Regional here, preceding Kentucky against Duke, many people believe the national champion will come out of Rupp Arena late Saturday afternoon.

All of which is a long way of getting to some talk about Kyle Macy, the Kentucky guard who was first-team all-America, although he scored only 15.7 points a game. Even as Joe Hall grouched about today's free throw statistics, he had no complaint with Macy, who was 19 for 19. And if Kentucky makes it to the final four, it will make it because Kyle Macy has been a hero again.

Macy is the kid next door, if you happen to live in a little town in Middle America. He's one of those foot-scuffing, head-ducking, aw-shucks guys. If they made a movie about him, Ronnie Howard would play the part: a neat, good-looking, shy kid from Peru, Ind., whose dad was a basketball coach. This is true: If you tell Macy you heard he is so adored here that a 14-year-old girl climbed into the team bus to kiss him, Kyle Macy will blush for you.

This is a conservative state, which is one way of saying this is a Southern state that took 10 years before it paid any attention to Brown v. the Board of Education. On a team with four black starters, Macy is the only kid next door whose blush can be seen by the 23,000 people who buy season tickets here.

The Kentucky publicity office says it has answered 2,000 requests for autographed pictures of Macy. The requests come in a hundred a week. To answer his mail, Macy drafted a form letter and enlisted two friends to help him fold and stuff the replies. Of all the Kentucky memorabilia available -- for $9 you can buy sunglasses with "Wildcats" etched on the lenses -- the nicest is a print of Macy that sells for $32.50 framed.

"If Kyle was any more perfect, you couldn't stand it," said Hall, who accepted Macy as a transfer from Purdue four years ago and told everyone Macy would win a national championship for Kentucky. The first year Macy played, Kentucky won it.

Macy is 6 feet 3 and 183 pounds. He is not quick and he is not a good leaper. Because he has been ill with flu much of the last six weeks -- "And right now he's a lot sicker than he'll let on. I believe," Hall said -- Macy's stamina has been questioned by people who believe the combination of size, strength and condition may make him a marginal professional player.

Don't tell that to Joe B. Hall, who would love to have 15 Macy's. "He really is close to perfect. He's self-disciplined, he's self-motivated, he's dedicated, coachable, able to take whatever role the team needs, whether it's passing the ball or scoring or playing defense. He doesn't just score to build his reputation, he scores to win games. If I wanted him to, he'd average 25 points a game easily."

"He's a Cousy type," Hall said, bringing in the name of an NBA god, Bob Cousy, the best playmaker ever. "He's a player who can run your offense, get the ball to the open man, hit everything when he's left open, hit all his free throws."

What Kyle Macy is, if you get the drift of Hall's words, is the ultimate team basketball player, a guy with not all the gifts he might have asked for but a guy who has taken what he has and made the very most of it.

"Fundamentals are what I always concentrated on." Macy said, meaning he learned to dribble the ball with both hands and do a reverse pivot in both directions and make the jab step quickly to set up his jumper. "I don't have the talents others do. I'm not an understanding jumper or outstandingly quick. I have to use my head. I have to find the open man and find a way to get him the ball."

In Kentucky's 29-5 season, Macy led the team in scoring 20 times with a season high of 29 points. He is shooting 53 percent from the field, 91.2 percent at the free throw line. It is no wonder, then, that Bob Knight, the coach at Indiana, calls Macy "my biggest recruiting mistake."

Though Peru is only a two-hour drive from Indiana's campus, Knight was not all that interested in Macy. He had too many guards already, Knight said. But when a Cuban broke Macy's jaw with a sneak punch in last summer's Pan-American Games and sent the aw-shucks kid home early, it was Knight, the perceived ogre of a coach, who flew to Lexington to present personally Macy's gold medal.

During the Southeastern Conference tournament two weeks ago. Macy left a hospital after 3 1/2 hours of inconclusive tests to visit a Kentucky fan in Birminham who was too sick to come to the tournament. The man, on seeing Macy in his home, broke down in tears. So did Macy's companions. Only the all-American kid kept his poise.

"I hope I made him a little happier," Macy said, "because my career here has been happy for me. If you'd written a script, it couldn't be any better. We got off the plane in Alaska and there were Kentucky fans to meet us -- in Alaska! You hear about the way they love basketball here, but until you go through it, you don't really understand it."

At 13 months of age, Macy said, his father the coach lifted him by his pants high enough to drop a little rubber ball through a hoop in the basement. The coach later put him on a chair with a volleyball, and then at 5 or 6 took the chair away and let the kid fire a real basketball from the basement floor.

Now a first-round draft choice by Phoenex (last year because he is a fifth-year senior), an all-America, the shy kid they love so much here the local newspaper ran his picture full-page size today, Macy says he will remember the standing ovation from the 23,000 season ticket holders at Rupp Arena at his last regular-season appearance here.

"It was an emotional time," he said. "There weren't any tears in my eyes, because for me it was a happy time. But it was a real good feeling. It was a kind of tingling along your spine."

Saying so, Macy blushed.