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Chip firmly on shoulder for overlooked Cats

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It happens every year. At the risk of sounding like a typically paranoid Kentucky fan, the national media has once again decided that a down year for Kentucky equals irrelevance.

Is there any other major program in America whose 10-year run gets them less credit than UK's? I mean, don't get me wrong, the lack of Final Fours and titles is what keeps UK off the radar, and as I've noted before, Tubby's reluctance to "sell" the program only adds to the fact that Kentucky isn't a glamour program in the same way anymore as UNC and Duke et al.

But why does everyone else get a mulligan and UK doesn't? the last four years of Kentucky basketball feature this...

* 26-game win streak & Elite Eight, 30+ wins
* Number one overall seed, 27+ wins
* Elite Eight double OT loss, No. 2 seed, 27+ wins
* Crappy year (still 22 wins, second round NCAAs)

Disregarding the internal divisions within Big Blue Nation -- which is a HUGE thing to pretend doesn't influence popular opinion, but anyway -- why is UK's "down year" somehow a sign of the program's precipitous decline? Simply put, it's bullshit.

Let's look at one of the national sports media's favorite darlings, say, Arizona. The other Wildcats went a disappointing 11-7 in a weaker conference in the PAC-10, a conference that produced one Final Four participant (not two, like the SEC), and which had a 19-12 overall record.

The team was plagued by academic issues and team turmoil, and it limped through a subpar season, culminating in a loss to a top-5 Big East power. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So Arizona brings in some hot shot freshmen. But they lost their starting backcourt and three senior guards, they don't return their top scorer and do return their top center. They lack experience and their backcourt situation is not secure as of yet.

Naturally, like a very similar Kentucky team, pundits would be skeptical and rate the Arizona Wildcats in the 20-30 range to start the season, right?

Wrong. Arizona is number 10 in both the AP and ESPN/Coaches' poll. Logical? Not so sure about that. It was a "down year" for Lute Olsen and Arizona. Those are bound to happen, they say.

But why doesn't Kentucky get the same leeway? OK, so Arizona's incoming class has more McDonald's flair to it. But their returning players have every bit as much to prove as Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, don't they? And since when are freshmen, even hyped ones, a guarantee of anything other than a few flashes of brilliance?

I don't get it.

But I guess I'm just a stupid UK homer, then. Because the national media, in all its wisdom, has decided that Kentucky is simply doomed to finish in the middle of the pack, as always (* except for every other year except last year, remember?).

If Joe Crawford were at UCONN, do you think he'd be more highly regarded? I sure do. blogger cum expert Yoni Cohen read the "I check a lot of message boards" tea leaves in placing Tubby Smith on the ridiculous "likely to be fired" list.

He also thinks a Tennessee team with Chris Lofton and a bunch of freshmen (talented though they may be) is already better than a UK team with two McDonald's All-Americans, three returning starters and Tubby Smith coaching. But, hey, what do I know? I've only been watching Bruce Pearl coach for five years and Smith for 15.

Uber-Wildcats antagonist Pat Forde -- he of the chummy Rick Pitino relationship -- was less nasty but just as dismissive in talking up the SEC but playing down the Cats' chances.

And while there are plenty of reasons LSU and Alabama are talented enough to beat up on the Cats, where is the skepticism that should accompany any John Brady- or Mark Gottfried-coached team? One year for LSU or Alabama (second round loss, again, remember ... ) erases all the years of underachieving, I suppose. But at Kentucky, one year is a "trend."

Yeah, Big Baby and Ronald Steele are pretty good. But didn't that "lousy" Kentucky team last year split with mostly the same Alabama team and come a Sheray Thomas jump hook away from beating LSU in Baton Rouge? What exactly am I missing here?

And if a post player as talented, if enigmatic, as Morris were returning full-strength at, say, Duke or UCONN, or a Crawford was taking over the scoring at Michigan State or Illinois, wouldn't he make even the second team all-conference in the preseason?

CBSSportsline's newbie college hoops columnist Gary Parrish is marginally more kind in slotting the Cats second in the SEC East. But he still gets his digs in, saying:

"[D]on't be surprised when half the league makes the NCAA Tournament, and at least three members head into March with reasonable shots at the Final Four."

The implication being that Kentucky is not among them (though he's hedging his bets better than Cohen or Forde).

The local media is somewhat kinder, focusing instead on what may work for the Cats -- a newfound cohesion as an antidote.

I guess this all makes me just another homer fan, incapable of seeing how great everyone else is and how mediocre Kentucky is. I guess it makes me not knowledgeable because I think that ranking Creighton or Tennessee higher than Kentucky is purely out of some lingering sense of schadenfreude.

Or am I just missing something?