The Wildcats received an 8-seed, a little higher than many experts believed they would get, and higher than some thought they deserved. "Our seed was about what we had expected," said coach Tubby Smith. "We know we didn't play up to our full potential. I think we learned a lot about ourselves. We had been defending extremely well before the South Carolina game. Rebounding seems to be improving. I like the way we're playing right now."
Their opponent will be the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers have a 24-6 record overall and finished second in Conference USA regular season play and in their post season tournament. They are currently ranked 24th in the nation. The game will be a rematch of an NCAA Tournament rematch, when UAB upset the Wildcats 76-75 in Columbus, Ohio in 2004. The Blazers jumped on the Wildcats early in that game, building a nine-point half time lead. The Cats fought their way back but fell just short.
"They're a team that's having a great year," said Smith, "We played them two years ago, and it was a good game up in Columbus. A couple of players they had then are still with them. They do a great job. I have the utmost respect for (UAB coach) Mike Anderson. His teams always play hard, and play aggressive. Their up-tempo style of play is one that can be disruptive. Marvett McDonald has had an outstanding season. We're going to have to play better than we did in our last outing, but we're excited about the opportunity of playing in the NCAA Tournament."
McDonald is a 6-foot-2 senior guard that averages 15 points per game, specializing in the long range bomb. He has made 94 of them this season. McDonald scored 39 in one game earlier this season, including 8-12 from three point range. In the C-USA Tournament Championship game, however, Memphis held McDonald to just 6 points on 2-11 shooting.
The Wildcats will have to regroup before heading to the tournament. The Cats are coming off a painful loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semi-final. After the game however, the players almost immediately began to look ahead, "We have to put this loss behind us, get back home to Lexington and prepare for who we will face in the tournament," said sophomore point guard Rajon Rondo.
The game will give the Cats an opportunity to exact some payback. Kentucky had been ranked #2 in the country and was heavily favored to defeat the unranked Blazers. Both teams have players that faced each other in the 2004 match-up. Ravi Moss played nine minutes, scoring 6 points on his only two three-point attempts. Before the match-ups were announced, Moss said he really didn't care which teams they faced, "We know that where we will be seeded, we are not going to have any easy games. Every game is going to be a major challenge, so it really doesn't matter."
Sophomore center Randolph Morris agreed, "When you get to the NCAA Tournament you are pretty much going to get a tough challenge from any team you face."
The number one seeded Memphis Tigers are the only top 25 ranked team that UAB has faced this year. The teams played three times. They each won at home during the regular season but Memphis beat the Blazers in the Conference USA Tournament final this past week. By contrast, the Wildcats have played nine games that were against nationally ranked opponents at the time the games were played. Kentucky was 3-6 against those teams (3-7 if you count North Carolina, a team not ranked at the time they beat the Cats, but became ranked later in the year).
"They're bench concerns me," Smith said of UAB, "They have great athleticism, speed, and their ability to turn you over is something that you have to be aware of. We've had our share of problems taking care of the basketball, so that's something that concerns me. We'll get busy preparing the proper way."
Should the Wildcats survive the rematch with UAB, their next opponent would likely be Connecticut, the nation's number one ranked team. The Huskies are 27-3 overall and face Albany in their NCAA opener.