WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | Sports

Surging Kentucky Ready for Marquette

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - For the Kentucky Wildcats, reaching the NCAA tournament for a record 49th time is the highlight of a turbulent season.

And the low point?

"We lost to - what was the name of that school again?" senior guard Ramel Bradley said Wednesday, looking to teammate Joe Crawford for help.

"Gardner-Webb," Crawford said.

"We lost to Gardner-Webb," Bradley said. "You're like, this is ridiculous. Things can't get any worse at Kentucky. But then when you lose again to ..."

"San Diego," Crawford said.

"San Diego, it can get worse," Bradley said.

It's no wonder Bradley struggled to remember. Those losses came in November and December, an eternity ago in college basketball.

The 11th-seeded Wildcats (18-12) are a different team as they prepare to face sixth-seeded Marquette (24-9) in the South Regional opening round Thursday. The Wildcats surged into the postseason, and they'll try to keep rolling without freshman forward Patrick Patterson, their leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer.

"We know we're going to have a great battle with Kentucky," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "There's really not a lot of weaknesses."

Both teams struggled through uneven stretches and appear to be peaking at the right time.

"They definitely remind us a lot of us," Kentucky forward Perry Stevenson said.

Marquette opened 6-5 in the Big East but went 8-3 overall down the stretch, losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the Big East semifinals.

The Golden Eagles have a balanced attack, with four starters averaging at least 11 points per game.

"Just the way we play, we push the ball, we throw it ahead, everybody touches it," guard Wesley Matthews said.

The Wildcats were 7-9 before they beat then-No. 3 Tennessee 72-66 on Jan. 22. Kentucky won 11 of its last 14, and one of the losses came by three points at Tennessee and another in overtime against Georgia in the tornado-ravaged Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Wildcats teetered on the bubble for weeks before squeezing into the NCAA field. First-year coach Billy Gillispie said his team had to show tournament toughness in a series of close calls near the end of the year.

"I think that's something that really bodes well for you, for your postseason opportunities and postseason chances," he said.

Still, the Wildcats view themselves as underdogs in this game, an unlikely role for a storied program.

"I think that's the best place to be in, when no one believes in you and you just have to believe in yourself and just come all together as a team," Bradley said.

The Golden Eagles aren't buying it.

"I mean, Kentucky?" Marquette guard Dominic James said. "I've never heard of Kentucky being the underdog. They're one of the most prestigious schools in basketball."

Indeed, the cover of the Wildcats' postseason media guide touts "the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball."

High seeds are a part of that tradition. Playing on the West Coast isn't.

This is only the second time Kentucky has played in the NCAA tournament in Southern California. The last time, they lost to UCLA and John Wooden in the 1975 national final in San Diego.

Kentucky opened that tourney with a 22-point rout of Marquette, which would win the national title two years later.

That was a different era in college hoops. Times have changed, but expectations at Kentucky haven't.

Asked to define what Kentucky fans expect from their team, Stevenson said. "Seven championships in six years."

Only a diehard would expect the Wildcats to win it all this year. In some ways, simply reaching the tourney is a victory for this team.

"I think this time making the tournament is even more special because of where we came from in the beginning of the year," Bradley said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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