At first glance, there is ample reason for the Kentucky men's team to fear the UAB Blazers. They are, after all, a high-octane offense (74.7 ppg, 49th in NCAA) and a pressuring defense (#2 in NCAA at steals per game, 11.1), while our own Wildcats are easily and accurately pegged as a grind-it-out, turnover-prone team.
But numbers can be deceiving.
UAB has not played a caliber of opponent (outside of Memphis) on a consistent basis to accurately judge their overall team strength. Yes, they beat Memphis on the UAB home floor and played them close in the CUSA tourney. However, they didn't play a single other team all season that will be playing in the NCAAs. Not one. They lost to Minnesota and Depaul -- the Big Ten and Big East equivalents of South Carolina. So the Blazers are a bit of an unknown.
Many big media prognosticators are picking against UK, as seems increasingly fashionable to do. Maybe it's the notoriety that comes along with it, as a sniff of negativity sends the UK faithful into a spasm of web postings, cross-referencing and overall rise in viewership. (Sidebar: And yet, UK fans still seem oblivious en masse to the reason that ESPN et al. make Kentucky a target ... it's a numbers and ratings game, folks.) And maybe they should. After all, at 21-12 and without a consistent stretch of dominance all season, this Wildcats squad is nearly as much an unknown as their first-round opponent.
But there is one factor that has been a nagging issue all season which could come back to help the Wildcats in a most unpredictable way. Talent.
As in, the Wildcats have it and the Blazers, for the most part, do not. The Kentucky team that fell to UAB in 2004 -- led by seniors Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels, Antowain Barbour and Gerald Fitch -- was a cohesive bunch that had flirted all season long with defeat only to magically, unthinkably, come up with the victory time and time again. It was not a particularly talented group in terms of raw ability, but was, however, a remarkably capable bunch that executed Tubby Smith's gameplans to perfection.
The core of this year's Cats are a bizarro version of that bunch: credentialled (3 McD All-Americans start), hyped (Rajon Rondo & Randolph Morris are future pros, with Joe Crawford close behind), confounding and displaying a maddening inability to execute in the close games.
But against the Blazers, these Wildcats could have a talent advantage. Maybe not 1-12 down the bench, but for stretches on the floor, this crew is stronger, more agile, faster, with better game than that much more successful '04 bunch was.
This may seem a strange argument given the incessant focus of the UK on-line fans and the fly-by-night announcers on Kentucky's supposed talent gap. While it is nearly undeniable now that the Wildcats' junior class is subpar by traditional UK standards, the sophomore four (lest we forget the vital contributions of Ramel Bradley) is as good a group on paper as any of Tubby's tenure. I truly believe that, and I think that in the end the numbers will back me up on it.
How the Bobby Perrys and Lukasz Obrzuts deal with the UAB pressure may indeed determine UK's fate, and if this season is any indication, trying to predict that would result in abject failure.
But I would argue (however unconvincingly) that it is rather the more probable success of the Rondos and Morrises that will aid the Wildcats in this game.
Maybe the biggest key will be Mr. Crawford. As noted here and elsewhere, Detroit's finest has slowly and quietly become everything that Kelenna Azubuike was the past two seasons. Since he helped the Cats to their big road win against South Carolina by scoring 12 points, Joe C has failed to hit double figures only once (LSU loss). Meanwhile, the three-pointers are now falling (45.2 % over those past 8 games), and his points are up to 12.8 in that stretch, with his shooting at a brisk 50%.
But these numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Crawdaddy has begun to see his role as the go-to shooter. And while he has not been able to completely grab that mantle, he is on the cusp. Such ice-in-the-veins confidence is an absolute must for a team in the tournament, and Rondo and Patrick Sparks cannot be the only guys willing to take that shot. In fact, I would argue, given Rondo's spotty shooting and Sparks' inability to create his own shot, it's Crawford who must demand the ball in the clutch.
If the Wildcats don't panic and do execute the gameplan Tubby draws up, they will win. Despite the palpable and collective anxiety exhibited by the Big Blue Nation in the runup to this opening-round game, it's Kentucky's game to lose, not UAB's game to win.
Sometimes it's tough being the big dog.