No one has confused this year's Kentucky basketball team with last year's, which had Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin and -- until it ran into Georgetown -- expected to win the national title.
But, right now, folks back home in Lexington aren't complaining. Not even the sharp-tongued critics. These Wildcats, led by 6-foot-8 all-America junior Kenny (Sky) Walker, have salvaged a season for themselves.
And Friday night, Kentucky (18-12) hopes to keep the reclamation project alive when it meets St. John's in an NCAA West Regional semifinal game at McNichols Arena at 10:09 EST. Two other surprising teams, North Carolina State (22-9) and Alabama (23-9) will play in the other semifinal at 7:35.
The winners will meet Sunday for the regional title and the right to advance to the Final Four in Lexington March 30 and April 1.
Ah, Lexington. Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall and his rambunctious group of overachievers would like nothing better than to return home victorious with the sweet words of to "My Old Kentucky Home" ringing in their ears. And judging by the Wildcats' recent performances, it's not entirely out of the question -- although getting by St. John's won't be easy.
"This is a different feeling, being the underdog, rather than being expected to win," Hall said. "But if given the choice, I'd rather be in the position we were in last year. I like being on top. This year, we started out 1-4, and the pressure was on us not to be the first team in 57 years here to have a losing season.
"But the players responded and pulled together. I think, for what Walker does for us, he has to be the best player in the country. He does so many things at both ends and does them well. He plays with intensity and does what it takes to get the ball in the basket from any angle or with either hand."
After averaging 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds while playing in the shadow of Turpin and Bowie last season, Walker improved his numbers to 22.9 points and 10.2 rebounds this season. He is very close to becoming the first player to lead the Southeastern Conference in both categories since Tennessee's Bernard King in 1976-77. The Roberta, Ga., native has 37 assists, a team-high 36 blocks and 27 steals. He is shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 76.5 from the foul line.
Apparently,he has saved his best for March. He had 29 points and 15 rebounds in the Wildcats' 66-58 victory over Washington in the NCAA's first round and scored 23 points in a 64-61 upset of Nevada-Las Vegas in the second round.
"I remember what an empty feeling I had after Georgetown beat us (by 64-40 in the semifinal)," Walker said. "Such a good season had to end in that kind of disappointment.
"Not too much was expected of us this year, and we've fooled some people. I don't think I'm that much better of a player. It's just that the offense is geared toward me. I didn't mind playing in the shadow of the big guys last year. Maybe it was good for me."
It couldn't have hurt him. This season, he was voted SEC player of the year and a near-consensus all-America.
Hall said, "We aren't a great shooting team by any means, and if Louie (St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca) sags on Kenny, we might as well forfeit the game. He's done his homework."
None of Kentucky's other starters is averaging double figures in scoring. Bret Bearup, a 6-9 senior (6.4 points, 5.7 rebounds), starts at center. He will draw the assignment of stopping 7-foot Bill Wennington. Winston Bennett, a 6-7 freshman (7.2, 5.4), and Walker are the forwards. Junior Roger Harden (5.0, 4.5 assists) and freshman Ed Davender (8.4, 3.0 assists) start in the back court.
The Redmen, meanwhile, have so many weapons. Wennington (12.6, 6.4) has improved steadily. Walter Berry (17.0, 8.8) is a superb forward. Willie Glass (7.0, 3.1) is a fine forward. Mike Moses (6.1, 4.0 assists) is a good point guard, and all-America Chris Mullin (20.3, 4.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists) was born to play this game.
N.C. State, getting its best performances from 6-8 senior Lorenzo Charles (18.3, 6.3) and Spud Webb (10.9, 5.1 assists), is quietly trying to steal its way to another trip to the Final Four. Its rollercoaster season is definitely on the upswing, too, with tournament victories over Nevado-Reno (66-56) and Texas-El Paso (86-73).
Alabama bounced back from a double-overtime loss to Auburn in the SEC tournament title game to eliminate Arizona, 50-41, and Virginia Commonwealth, 63-59.
The Crimson Tide relies mainly on its inside strength: 6-7 Buck Johnson (16.0, 9.3) and 6-9 Bobby Lee Hurt (12.9, 8.7).