DENVER — Kentucky isn't used to being an underdog. As St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca points out, "We're speaking here of the basketball aristocracy of the college world."
But Kentucky is an underdog this year. Underdog, Cinderella team, comeback team of the year--pick one.
"Do you want me to call them sleeping giants?" asked Carnesecca, whose team is next to face the waking Wildcats.
It's not a role that Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall likes, but underdog is better than just plain dog, which is the way Kentucky looked early on.
The way the season started, no one would have guessed that Kentucky would advance this far, to a 7 o'clock (PST) meeting tonight with St. John's in the West Regional at McNichols Arena. In the 4:30 game, North Carolina State (22-9) plays Alabama (23-9).
In explaining how bad it was for the Wildcats at the start of the season, Kentucky point guard Roger Harden said: "There were times when we'd lose a home game and actually be afraid to leave the locker room. I'm serious. We'd be afraid of what those people would do to us."
Kentucky basketball fans do not take kindly to a team that starts 1-4, the worst start for Kentucky since 1926. Even knowing that it was a rebuilding year, even knowing that the team had lost leading scorer Melvin Turpin, leading rebounder Sam Bowie, leading playmaker Dicky Beal and leading free-throw shooter Jim Master, the fans expected a little more from a team with Kentucky's tradition.
The young Wildcats took to the road to play a tough early schedule, and things looked bleak. Throw in a string of injuries and it looked like time to throw in the towel.
"Let's face it, we were terrible," Harden said. "The people of Kentucky were down on us. The media was down on us. The staff was down on us.
"I mean, you have to experience playing basketball for Kentucky to truly know what a serious matter Kentucky basketball is to the state. It's really pretty unbelievable, and we caught it from every angle. So that's why this is such a great feeling."
Kentucky came into the NCAA tournament with a 16-13 record, the worst of any of the at-large teams. But, after beating Washington and Nevada Las Vegas last weekend, the Wildcats are making the selection committee look good.
"We thought all along we were one of the top 64 teams, Hall said. "We were the 12th seed in the West. Not the 16th. It wasn't a marginal kind of thing. . . . In the first game, we beat the fifth-seeded team (Washington), the co-champions of the Pac-10, and we were favored.
"Members of the selection committee told me that they would look at more than just records. They looked at our schedule, and it popped out at them like a pop-up in a child's play book."
Tonight, Kentucky has a chance to pull off the upset of the tournament.
"We're playing without pressure," Hall said. "The up side is tremendous, and there is not much down side. We've exceeded our preseason predictions and we're enjoying this."
Especially after that slow start.
"We had nowhere to go but up," Hall said. "We started out with just a few of our players in condition. We were disorganized because of injuries. We had a tough early schedule. And we had a young ballclub.
"We had a bad start, but from there we dug in. We did really well to become a contender in our conference and a pretty darned good team."
Kentucky's game revolves around 6-8 junior forward Kenny Walker, who averages 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds a game. Asked what would happen if St. John's packs its defense against Walker, Hall turned sarcastic.
"Well, we're not a very good outside shooting team," he said, "so I guess we'll just have to forfeit. Concede the game to Lou because he did his homework.
"Kenny Walker has had that all year. Everyone packs in on him. Maybe Lou would like to do something new. Maybe isolate him and go one on one with him. That would shock Kenny and take him out of his game.
"I've never seen a player with the intensity, explosiveness or variety of moves. I don't know what his best move is because he does so many things--with either hand from either angle. He's hungry with the ball. He plays with his heart.
"And he's a team man. It doesn't enter his mind how many points he has, and that's why his teammates go to him so unselfishly."
Asked if his guards, one of whom, Harden, averaged 27.6 points as a high school player in Indiana, had been poor shooters in high school, Hall turned the sarcasm a notch higher.
"No," he said. "I've been coaching those guys not to be able to shoot. I have worked hard to mess up their shots and I've done a damn good job of it.
"There's nothing worse than guards who want to shoot when you have a good big man inside. The guy inside can shoot, he can draw fouls--usually on the other team's best players--he can rebound. You want to keep your big man happy and you do that by giving him the ball."
When it came to St. John's, though, Hall dropped all sarcasm.
"I don't know when I've seen a team with three better players," he said. "St. John's is one of the better ball clubs to come along in the last 10 years. They're 29-3. If it weren't for the Georgetown team, St. John's would now be known as just a super team. It's an outstanding team."