You're Kentucky and you're ranked No. 22 in the nation. You're the all-time leader in wins, second with 7 NCAA titles and have arguably the best traveling contingent in the country turning a road trip to Maui into a de facto home game.
So how exactly are you 'Under the radar' again? Simple. You're sneaky good.
The Wildcats have a major opportunity this week to jump back into the national discussion (Or, to be fair, to justify lowered expectations). The three-day tournament is all on ESPN or ESPN2 and carries with it the hype of early season tournaments and the devoted gaggle of punditry that accompanies any ESPN event.
First up for Kentucky (2-0) is Depaul, Louisville's former Metro Conference antagonist and now Big East doormat. Thought to be a program on the upswing, Depaul has started out of the gate extremely slowly this season, despite several returning starters and one definite NBA prospect in Sammy Mejia.
Were Dave Leitao still the coach (he's now at Virginia), the game might be different. But poor Jerry Wainwright -- formerly the giant killer at Richmond -- doesn't have his guys playing stellarly yet, though they can slow the game to a crawl if need be.
That doesn't mean the game will be easy. But this Kentucky team is stocked with good, if as yet untapped, potential. And time is running out for juniors Randolph Morris (15 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Ramel Bradley (team-leading 15.5 ppg) and Joe Crawford (12.5 ppg, 5 rpg) to make a splash with NBA types and the sports pundit class alike. Few places allow for such hype building as well as Maui, where the USS Adam Morrison set sail last season and countless others launched MVP campaigns under the glare of the cameras.
This isn't to say it's time for those three -- or any Cats -- to start chucking for the scouts. Rather, the prestige of the few leaps tremendously with the success of the many, in this case the undervalued Wildcats.
A few things have to happen for UK to steal three wins and emerge from Maui a team on the rise.
Meet the Press?
Fans across Big Blue Nation had a grin from ear to ear when the Cats jumped out into a three-quarter press on Friday against overmatched Mississippi Valley State. The result was a predictable tidal wave of easy buckets, foul shots and fan noise.
Whether that was an experiment against a notably bad team or a sign that Tubby sees something in this team defensively we haven't seen enough to know. Generally, the stubborn Smith gets back to the half-court smashmouth defense that won his NCAA title ring when push comes to shove. And yet, this team is remarkably quick, and with no real lumbering players in heavy rotation (Woo seems to be drifting down the bench a bit), and increased stamina courtesy of the new strength coach, the legs are there to open things up. This is not to mention the time it takes for the newbies to soak up the intricacies of the ball-line defense. A press cuts that time in half.
The only thing the press requires, actually, is making shots.
But as I've noted in this space before, while at first glance, scoring was clearly an issue, last year's problems ultimately were the result of a lack of defensive pressure. Teams could score whenever they needed to, mostly, and they did. Breakdowns on defensive rebounding cost several wins, including UConn in the NCAAs.
Thus, for Kentucky to succeed in Maui (and beyond), it will have to get Tubby's trademark team defense -- hopefully via an effective press -- to shut down the several talented, but inexperienced, teams in the tournament.
Ride the Big Guy
Perhaps the biggest trouble for the Cats on the offensive end in their lackluster win Thursday over Miami (OH) was the fact that, foul trouble or no, Morris was left out of the loop for most of the game. His points were gotten mostly off rebounds and a few broken plays.
By Friday, it was clear the message had gotten through that without a dangerous Morris in the middle this season, the team is going nowhere. Ditto that need for the games in Hawaii.
Morris, perhaps more than anyone at the tournament, can boost his stock with some strong play. That's because after his poor showing in draft tryouts and an out-of-shape and ineffectual half-season, the NBA is in wait-and-see mode on the Big Cat. A double-double and a near repeat this past week has fans buzzing, and a big game or two against genuine competition -- including potentially UCLA big man Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, among others -- would help erase the image of the "old" Morris.
Call it a win-win proposition for the Cats if Randy stands tall after Maui.
Nothing to Lose
Despite the fact that fans all over the Bluegrass would go apeshit if Kentucky fell flat, the truth is that the national media is so willing to forget the Cats that a mediocre trip probably won't really change much with them. And big games against Indiana, North Carolina and the SEC heavyweights means that losses at this point aren't overwhelming.
But the situation applies differently in reverse. Because the Cats have been overlooked, there is little of the kind of pressure that UCLA or Memphis will feel, carrying top 15 rankings into the tournament. For once, being Kentucky won't mean being the target (at least theoretically).
That would change in a hurry if the Cats made it to the final and looked impressive in doing so. It's hard to ignore an undefeated, Maui-winning Kentucky team, if only because the rambunctious Big Blue Nation won't let anyone forget it.
There's a lot at stake for the Cats: a bad showing (two or more losses) would torpedo any good vibes for the new season, a good showing (two wins) would keep momentum going, and a great showing (three wins) would launch Kentucky back into the national psyche and on national TV, no less.
Don't think for a second that Tubby Smith and his boys don't know all of this. I expect to see a determined team, especially the starters, in the opener. Anything after that is impossible to say, having seen so little in this opening part of the season.
I said it after the Blue-White game and I'll stick to it -- the Cats will win Maui. I don't stake anything but some words on it, but I have a feeling this team has a lot of heart and that the 'name' teams at Maui are also overrated, especially Memphis.
We'll see. I'm just glad to be playing some games that matter, and to get to see them without such an effort to find the game ... all from Hawaii.