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Takin' the Poll: Cats 'under the radar'

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The big media meme surrounding Kentucky basketball for the preseason appears to be the idea of the Wildcats flying 'under the radar.' This tope is pretty overused these days, making one wonder just how effective the radar is if winners are constantly flying under it.

The first national ESPN/Coaches' poll has been released, and it's about right given the unknowns the Wildcats have to answer and the player production they lost. The coaches slotted the Cats in the No. 22 spot to open the season, the implications being that Marquette (minus NBA pick Steve Novak and with no major additions), Washington (minus NBA players Bobby Jones and Brandon Roy, plus a big-name freshman center) and Memphis (without Darius Washington, Shawne Williams OR Rodney Carney) could all best Tubby Smith's crew right now.

I happen to strongly disagree. But the Cats will have their chance to answer critics early in the Maui Invitational, and could very well face off against Memphis out there, as well as No. 5 UCLA and No. 21 Georgia Tech.

Meanwhile, a little closer to home, the SEC media chimed in, predicting Kentucky a second-place finish in the SEC East behind defending national champion Florida, which returns all of its main contributors for a repeat attempt. Surprisingly, Alabama outpaced Final Four participant LSU (minus NBA lottery pick Tyrus Thomas now) for the SEC West preseason top spot.

Here are the picks:

Eastern Division

1.    Florida (28 first-place votes)
2.    Kentucky (1)
3.    Tennessee
4.    Vanderbilt
5.    South Carolina
6.    Georgia

Western Division

1.    Alabama (16)
2.    LSU (13)
3.    Arkansas
4.    Mississippi State
5.    Auburn
6.    Ole Miss

Not much surprise at the bottom. Mississippi State could be better than folks expect, especially if Jamont Gordon continues to develop. People expecting Tennessee to duplicate last year's success will probably be disappointed, not because the Vols will be bad, but because they will have a lot of new faces to work into the rotation. The loss of senior Major Wingate to disciplinary reasons hurts a lot.

I am generally overly optimistic, but this season -- much like the early part of 2003 -- I see a much higher ceiling for UK than some do. I think Florida may struggle in the tougher SEC, and that Kentucky could keep the pressure on the favored Gators all season. Much of it depends on Tubby Smith (a) getting production out of Jared Carter and Woo Obrzut and (b) settling on a rotation fairly early. If Tubby is still shuttling guys in and out of the starting lineup come January, this team will be struggling mightily.

One wonders if the lone media member who picked the Wildcats to win the SEC East knows something the rest of us do not, or if he/she has seen this all happen before -- "The Cats are down! The Cats are down!" -- and just figures that in February, the other 28 voters will all be forced to swallow their vote.

To paraphrase Senator John F. Kerry in 2004: "I voted for the Cats before I voted against them."