Marching unnoticed

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The role of underdog is not one that is familiar for UK basketball. But a roller-coaster season that started with a coaching change and wound its way through injuries and bad losses has left the Cats as just that — the underdog in their NCAA first-round matchup with Marquette.

The Cats and the Golden Eagles tip-off today at 2:30 p.m. EDT in Anaheim, Calif.

Senior guard Ramel Bradley said there is no question UK is an underdog out west, but it is a role he likes.

“I think we do (consider ourselves the underdog), just from the perspective of the media and how people just count us out and don’t think we can win,” Bradley said at the team’s pre-tournament news conference yesterday. “But 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 out together as a team.”

UK, the No. 11 seed in the South Region, has played as the underdog several times this season. The Cats lost to favored North Carolina and Louisville at home and fell to favored Indiana on the road. But UK also defeated then-No. 13 Vanderbilt in the SEC opener on Jan. 12 and downed then-No. 3 Tennessee a week later, both at Rupp Arena.

The Cats most dramatic role as underdog came after UK lost freshman forward Patrick Patterson in late February for the remainder of the season. UK traveled to Knoxville to play the top-ranked Volunteers that weekend with first place in the SEC East on the line and with few, if any, giving them a chance to win. The Cats held on until the final seconds, when senior guard Joe Crawford’s game-tying 3-point attempt rimmed out and sent the Cats away with a loss.

UK closed the regular season with two wins over South Carolina and Florida, sealing its trip to the NCAA Tournament for the 17th consecutive season.

While Crawford agreed with Bradley about UK’s status as the underdog, Marquette guard Dominic James is not buying it.

“I don’t think we’re getting caught up in the seedings or who the underdog is,” James said. “We respect the fact that we know they had to fight to get into the tournament. If that’s their motivation coming into this game, that’s on them.”

James, a junior, is making his third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament since coming to Marquette, but he has not won a tournament game yet. The Golden Eagles, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, fell to Alabama in 2006 and Michigan State last season.

Just as the Cats are using a rough regular season as their motivation, James is using his lack of success in March as his.

“We haven’t won a tournament game since I’ve been here,” James said. “That’s our motivation. Each team has to have some type of edge coming into any game for added motivation. If that’s their war cry, then we’ve got ours as well.”

If there is an underdog in this game, it might be hard to spot.

“They definitely remind us a lot of us,” sophomore forward Perry Stevenson said. “I guess the only difference is that they have a higher seed and different uniforms.”

Like UK, Marquette relies heavily on its guard play to find success on offense. Three of its four leading scorers — James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews — are guards, and the other, Lazar Hayward, is a 6-foot-6 forward that plays outside the paint more often than in it. Marquette center Ousmane Barro averages just 5.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

UK head coach Billy Gillispie spent much of the early season preaching toughness to his team and has recently applauded the effort and toughness UK showed throughout conference play. Marquette brings that same grit to the court every time out, Gillispie said.

“What really amazes me is (Marquette’s) consistency with their effort, and they really played well together,” Gillispie said. “They’ve won most of their games this year. The ones they haven’t won, they’ve been right there and had a chance to win them. But it’s all about (how) they play hard every single time, and as a coach that’s what I appreciate the most.”

The last time UK and Marquette played, the Golden Eagles were the underdog. UK had won 26 consecutive games, was the No. 1 team in the country and was looking to advance to its 14th Final Four when it met Marquette in the Elite Eight. Marquette guard Dwyane Wade erupted, notching a triple-double, as the Golden Eagles knocked off UK 83-69.

This game might not have a trip to the Final Four on the line, but it’s guaranteed to have a unique atmosphere, Marquette head coach Tom Crean said.

“Every time there’s been a Marquette-Kentucky game,” Crean said, “it’s had a special feel.”