Eddie Sutton has been producing winning college basketball teams for 17 years, but he'll tell you the one he's directing now is the most enjoyable.

"I've had some teams that maybe had more talent, maybe some that were better, but none that I've enjoyed coaching any more than these guys," Sutton said of his Kentucky Wildcats. "They have proven to me that they believe they can beat anyone.

"You look at 'em . . . I mean we got a great player in Kenny Walker, but if you look at the rest of these guys, they don't look like a team that should win 31 games. When I put that lineup out there, I look at them and I say to myself: 'Have we really won 31 games? Is this for real or am I dreaming?' What they do have is great Valentines -- big hearts."

It just so happens that on Valentine's Day, the Wildcats were sitting atop the Southeastern Conference -- two places higher than they were picked to finish -- with a 21-3 overall record after having beaten Alabama the night before in Tuscaloosa.

Today is St. Patrick's Day, 11 days after they beat the Crimson Tide (for the third time this year) in the final of the SEC tournament, and one day after they beat Western Kentucky, 71-64, in the second round of the NCAA Southeast regional here.

And, again, the Wildcats will play Alabama, which won on the same floor over Illinois, 58-56, on a last-second shot by Terry Coner. The fourth edition of Kentucky-Alabama will be played Thursday night at the Omni in Atlanta, which also is where Louisiana State and Georgia Tech will play.

"There's two ways to look at it," Sutton said. "When you beat a team three times, which we did with Alabama and LSU, a lot of people say you can't beat them four times. But, I'll tell you, I'd rather be 3-0 than 0-3. This club is remarkable. We think we can win the tournament regardless of who we play."

Walker, a 6-foot-8 senior, is the main reason the Wildcats are confident. Sunday, he shot 11 for 11 from the field and 10 for 13 from the line for 32 points.

Western Kentucky's Kennard Johnson, who spent much of Sunday trying to stop Walker, said he hasn't faced anyone as good in four college seasons.

"I feel real good when I get the ball in the paint," Walker said. "Especially one on one."

Most teams have tried a zone against Kentucky to keep more bodies on him, which means he does need help. And despite Sutton's assessment, there is some talent elsewhere on the team. And, as Sutton said: "They know their roles."

Winston Bennett, a 6-7, 210-pound junior from Louisville, is the other forward in a three-guard starting lineup and is the second-leading scorer (12.8) and leading rebounder (6.7). Sunday, he and Walker were the only Wildcats to play 40 minutes.

The guard trio includes 6-3 junior James Blackmon, who probably could jump over 5-5 teammate Leroy Byrd, 6-3 senior Roger Harden, who mans the point, and 6-2 sophomore Ed Davender, who has a smooth jumper (11.7 average, third on the team) and usually covers the opponent's best guard.

It was just before Thanksgiving that the three-guard setup emerged.

"The way we came up with the small lineup is that we told the players that whichever five were evaluated the best through preseason practice, that's who we'd go with when the season started Nov. 22 ," Sutton said. "So when you're winning, you hesitate to change."

But three sophomores -- 6-7 forward Richard Madison, 6-10 center Robert Lock and, especially, 6-9 center/forward Cedric Jenkins -- are playing bigger roles.

Jenkins has averaged 0.3 points and 2.2 rebounds while averaging 10 minutes a game. But in the NCAA first-round victory over Davidson, he had six points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, and, against Western Kentucky, he had nine important second-half points.

"He's proving to be a big asset," Bennett said. "We were waiting for one of our big people to step in and do the job. Cedric has done that and really helped, which will be beneficial down the road."

Added Walker: "It gives us a height advantage. Cedric can rebound, block shots, and he's been scoring a lot of points."

Sutton, in his first year in Lexington, is Kentucky's third coach in 55 years. When he arrived, there were published reports that boosters had paid players during Joe B. Hall's tenure. Despite the controversy, Sutton's team has won and the players seem be enjoying themselves more than they did under Hall.

"It's a little bit looser, not as structured," Harden said. "Everybody's benefited from Coach Sutton's system. And we're a lot happier as a team than we were last year."