MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Kentucky Wildcats have become an acquired taste. Last year they grabbed college basketball by the throat. This year they grow on you gradually, like a subtle burgundy or a plantar's wart.
The 'Cats are fully capable of defending their NCAA championship, but they are not so conspicuous this season. This time around, by every objective standard, the Kansas Jayhawks are the team to beat. Kentucky is the team on a tear, gathering steam, gaining confidence, deeply dangerous.
''I've been impressed,'' Georgia coach Tubby Smith said Sunday afternoon. ''I believe they can repeat...I would think that Kentucky may be the best team in the country right now. They're playing better than anybody else.''
Smith's view might be slightly biased - he is a former assistant to UK coach Rick Pitino - but the 'Cats have impressed the impartial as well as the impressionable during the past week. They won their 20th Southeastern Conference tournament Sunday with a 95-68 dismembering of Smith's distinguished Georgia squad. Had the Bulldogs been whipped any worse, someone surely would have summoned the humane society.
UK routed three SEC rivals by an average margin of 29 points at The Pyramid, each time equalling or surpassing the highest point total the opponent had allowed all season. Pitino's withering press prompted 65 turnovers in three days, and turned the inbounds pass into the most suspenseful play of the game.
South Carolina was able to beat Kentucky twice during the regular season because it is deep in quality dribblers. Those teams that handle the ball less precisely against UK figure to get fleeced.
''I don't think we're peaking,'' said UK forward Jared Prickett. ''We're just playing great basketball, doing exactly what we have to do to win... This time of year we just expect it. This team plays to win championships.''
These Wildcats are reminiscent of some of Bob Huggins' great pressing teams at the University of Cincinnati, with a slightly higher grade of talent. Seven different UK players scored in double figures in at least one game of the SEC Tournament, and there might have been more had Pitino permitted a greater amount of garbage time.
Ron Mercer, the UK sophomore who has declared for the NBA draft, has emerged as a marvel at both ends of the court since the midseason loss of Derek Anderson. Anthony Epps, switched from point guard to shooting guard only last week, responded to his new role with a career-high 22 points Sunday.
Changing point guards at this stage of the season is a hazardous undertaking, but Pitino says he likes to take risks at tournament time because the competition tends to get conservative. There is some arrogance in this attitude, but Pitino is pretty good about pushing the right buttons.
Less than two months after Anderson's knee gave out, Pitino has tinkered with his depleted team so skillfully that it has been able to gain a No. 1 seed in the West Regional. If Pitino is not the coach of the year, they should melt down the trophy and sell it as scrap.
Capabilities not in doubt
''I thought we'd win 21 or 22 games,'' he said after Kentucky's 30th victory. ''Then, when we lost Derek and we lost so much with him, this team has kind of made me to be more optimistic ... I knew they would step up, and I knew they would play hard. But I didn't know if they were capable of playing this well because it is a green team.''
This UK team is still a work in progress, an evolving power as opposed to an established one. It should not face a serious challenge until the West Regional finals (probably against Utah or Wake Forest), and it won't face Kansas or South Carolina before the NCAA championship game.
''I think we have a good chance of winning the national championship,'' swingman Allen Edwards said Sunday. ''We're confident. Even if we lost tonight, we wouldn't have lost our focus.''
UK's focus is on defending its title. Its chances are improving.