Cover Story: Reason to Believe

Like UC and Xavier, Kentucky is on a roll entering the NCAA Tournament

In some Kentucky families, it's been understood for several generations that the Kentucky Wildcats can't win the national college basketball championship every year. For the rest, it's March again — next year has arrived.

Kentucky basketball trades in high achievement. As UK has won all the honors already, every new team distinguishes itself by the achievements to which it adds. This year's group took UK's 25th Southeastern Conference Tournament championship and registered the program's 1,885th overall win, the highest mark of all time.

Most important, for the moment, the Wildcats have been granted the top overall seed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the record ninth time they've been so designated.

Every basketball season begins in Lexington with high hopes, which the Wildcats usually satisfy in some fashion, either on the court or in recruiting.

Some UK fans are famous for their zeal about recruiting. It's not uncommon for a UK fan to be remorseful about a season-ending loss deep into the NCAA Tournament, thinking about how it will hurt recruiting. But the recruiting is never hurt too badly, as the college game goes today.

Then again, you wouldn't have heard too many upbeat remarks about this year's talent by the faithful, some of whom decided weeks ago that this UK team is the least talented since the scandal-ravaged squads of 1988-90.

Those were lean times for UK, quickly turned around by Rick Pitino, who put the Big Blue back into the Final Four in 1993, his fourth year, then won the national championship in 1996. In the 11 years beginning with 1993, the Wildcats have been to eight Sweet Sixteens, four Final Fours and three championship games, winning two national titles.

This year's Wildcats look like everyone else in college basketball, trying to play the game beautifully without a big man of any stature. But they demonstrate especially strong parallels with Xavier.

The Wildcats are going to the St. Louis Regional about as hot, having won nine straight. They're senior-driven, and their inside players are smallish — 6-foot-8-inch Erik Daniels and 6-foot-6-inch Chuck Hayes. Daniels even gives the Cats a scratch of Crosstown color, having played at Princeton High.

The Wildcats' outside players are even small by the standard — 6-foot-3-inch Gerald Fitch and 6-foot-1-inch Cliff Hawkins. In between, their remaining starter, Kelenna Azubuike, and their one active reserve, Antwain Barbour, both are 6-feet-5-inches.

And that's your UK team seeded at the top of the bracket this year. Six guys, none of them very big, all but Hayes a senior, all but Barbour averaging 10-16 points per game.

This UK team is somewhat reminiscent of the probation-era teams, but it's more like one of the great UK historical efforts, the Rupp's Runts squad with no starter taller than 6-foot-5. The all-white Runts went down in history, losing the 1966 championship game to Texas Western's five African-American starters.

When the Wildcats left the floor after their second loss of this season to Georgia on Valentine's Day, not even the most hopeful UK fan could have envisioned the top seed in the tournament. But the Wildcats have done what the other top teams haven't in the last three weeks — they've won every game.

Now the tournament committee has set the Wildcats with the easiest run to the national championship. History says it's unlikely the Cats will make good on that reward.

Of the first eight times UK entered the tournament with the top seed, only once, in 1996, did the Wildcats win it all. That said, UK doesn't obey history — it makes history.

So UK will start with the winner of the play-in game and then, if all goes according to form, play Washington, Kansas, Gonzaga, St. Joseph's and Stanford. Hardly a murderer's row.

The rest of the top seeds are no less vulnerable. St. Joe's, the top seed in East Rutherford, remains suspect despite 27 straight wins this year because it played a weak schedule for a top contender. Stanford, the top seed in Phoenix, lost only one game this year, just like St. Joe's. Like them, as well, the question remains whether the conference schedule just wasn't strong enough to offer a true test.

Duke certainly has been tested since Valentine's Day but hasn't responded with dominance. The Atlantic Coast Conference is tougher than usual, dropping the Dukies four times in their last 10 games.

Among the top seeds, only the team leading the pack in St. Louis is on a big roll entering the NCAA Tournament. That would have been hard to believe just a few weeks ago.

Then again, when that team is Kentucky, it's never too hard to believe.

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