‘Cat Fans Entitled to Optimism

The University of Kentucky faithful should not be getting ahead of its collective self just quite yet. I mean, loading up on multiple copies of the DVD of Judy Garland's "Meet Me in St. Louis" for commemorative purposes might be just a tad bit too rushed.

The University of Kentucky faithful should not be getting ahead of its collective self just quite yet.

I mean, loading up on multiple copies of the DVD of Judy Garland's "Meet Me in St. Louis" for commemorative purposes might be just a tad bit too rushed.

But all of those for whom Wildcats' basketball borders on the "way of life," I'll say this:

You've got reason to look forward to March 13 with all of the eager anticipation you can muster.

Of course, we're still getting ahead of ourselves a bit on the "Kentucky has a great shot at a No. 1 seed come NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday" topic.

The Wildcats have some business to attend to before the field of 65 is unveiled on CBS that March 13 evening, beginning with performing well in the SEC Tournament. But one of the four No. 1 seeds – for the third year in a row – is definitely within the grasp of Tubby Smith's crew.

That became apparent, especially to those who have suspected it all along, during their recent win in Tuscaloosa, when the Wildcats came from 14 points behind in the first half to pull away down the stretch and beat a Sweet 16-caliber team – at the very least – in the form of University of Alabama, on its home floor, 78-71.

It was easily the team's most high profile – and significant – victory since it rallied to edge Louisville 60-58 in Freedom Hall 2 ½ months ago (on Dec. 18).

There was concern about the team's offensive productivity when it failed to break 70 points in three consecutive games, culminating in the 73-61 loss at South Carolina on Feb. 15.

But the ‘Cats have averaged 84 points since that time until Sunday's loss at Florida.

And, of course, this team has continued in the tradition of the sound defense played by all Smith squads, allowing just 61.3 points per game and surrendering a field-goal percentage of .404 during the 22-3 start.

Smith's club seems to have all the ingredients on hand needed not only to grab that No. 1 seed, but to make a real dent into the tournament once it gets under way.

Granted, this isn't the most physically gifted team in the country – especially if you measure such things in terms of future NBA first-round selections – but its depth can't be second-guessed.

Just look at the contributions that a walk-on guard (Ravi Moss) and little-used sophomore post man (Lukasz Obrzut) made during the nifty turnaround in Tuscaloosa as a prime example of that very long bench into which Smith can dip.

Chuck Hayes may be an undersized "power forward" and freshman Randolph Morris' evolution as a full-fledged "dominant" college big man is oh-so-far from complete.

But in this era when, because of NBA early entries, you can count the overpowering 6-9-plus types in the college game on four or five fingers, the Wildcats' post presence is more than sufficient.

The perimeter, of course, offers a multitude of options, including a beat you-off-the-dribble, slasher type in Kelenna Azubuike and one of the most dependable deep (and clutch) jump shooters anywhere in Patrick Sparks – as he so aptly displayed against the Crimson Tide.

Smith also has three freshmen guards, including one of the three or four most dynamic first-year playmakers in the country in Rajon Rondo, and the aforementioned walk-on (Moss, who hit all three of his shots and played solid defense against Alabama), that present a variety of matchup problems for opponents.

But here are is the thing I really liked about the Wildcats while watching the game with Alabama:

They never got out of character. Meaning, even when they fell 14 points behind in front of a hostile crowd and against one of the nation's best teams that seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, you never saw the ‘Cats start jerking up long, out-of-synch jump shots, in an attempt to get back into the game artificially quick.

And you didn't see them reach, slap or gamble while playing defense.

They did things the way Smith instructed them too, and the way he drills them to in every practice.

There are no short cuts in hoops – long term or short term – and Smith knows that as well as anyone in the sport.

His players seem to be catching onto that concept, too.

And, who knows? Maybe in a few weeks a certain DVD might just have a special meaning to those who hold Kentucky basketball very near and dear.

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