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Cats’ pedigree, tradition vs. Utah’s momentum

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IT might ruin a good daydream, but it should be noted that as the Utes play for the national title tonight, they really aren't big underdogs. It's a romantic thought, but . . .

That business about being over-achievers? Cinderella kids? Not likely. Right now the best way to deal with them is to toss them a piece of raw meat and run.As the Utes advanced through the NCAA playoffs, a curious thing happened: they got respect. Aretha Franklin-type R-E-S-P-E-C-T. At the same time, they got confident. They handled San Francisco and West Virgina, as expected. But then they beat the No. 1 seed in the West, Arizona, in a game that was so lopsided you wanted to cover your eyes. They jumped to a 16-point lead over top-ranked North Carolina and never trailed. Now they're playing Kentucky for the national title.

"Are we crashing the party? We're not crashing anybody's party," said center Michael Doleac. "We're making our own party."

Lately, the Utes are having a hard time staying in their Mr. Nice Guy mode. If you think they're all that nice, try getting inside for a rebound. Your dentist could end up making a house call. Saturday night, they shoved North Carolina all the way back to Chapel Hill. Last week they harrassed Arizona into shot after embarrassing shot. Cinderella? They're closer to Godzilla.

North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said they're far more athletic than they're given credit. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said they have "balance in every position, throughout their lineup and throughout their team," and denies being favored.

"We know we have to play our best game to beat a very good Utah team," said Smith.

Although they're both in the championship game, Kentucky and Utah aren't a matched set. One place they eat squirrel brains for breakfast; the other they eat green Jell-O (you decide which is worse). One has long, shady lanes with pastures of green; the other is wedged between towering mountains and a desert of salt. One team has a coach that answers to the name Tubby; the other has a coach who answers to the description "tubby." One has an NCAA bracket in its media guide, to give fans a chance to make March travel plans; the other has a schedule of the WAC Tournament.

One team has a 23,000-seat arena and has led the nation in attendance the past three years; the other averaged 13,818 but actually only sold out three games. One team inspired a fan to arrive 38 days early for a good seat on the first day of practice; the other still has tickets available at 7 on game nights. One sets its sights on winning the national title every year; the other sets its sights on winning the WAC some years. One team has won six national championships; the other has won one - on a year when it originally wasn't even invited to the tournament. One team has eight players in the NBA; the other has one. One team is good buddies with an NBA club in the same city; the other thinks it is an NBA club.

OK, so they're not cut from the same piece of cloth.

Still, somewhere along the line, the Utes got belligerent enough that they aren't all that intimidated by Kentucky. They're no longer arriving, hats in hand. They rolled through the WAC season, finishing first and remaining nationally ranked. Now there's only two teams left.

"I think when it really dawned on us that we could beat anyone was - going into the Arizona game - we knew we could beat them, but we didn't expect to beat them as bad as we did," said forward Alex Jensen. "If you asked any of our guys on this team, we don't look at ourselves as a Cinderella team."

Or as guard Andre Miller put it, "I don't think teams were shocked by us, but I think they were unaware of the way we move the ball, and they found they couldn't guard Hanno (Mottola) inside or outside. They didn't look at me as an aggressive driver. Now they look at all of us and say, `Who are we gonna stop?' "

So tonight when Utah and Kentucky meet for the national title, they may be coming from different backgrounds, but both have good reasons to win. Kentucky has the pedigree, the tradition and the following, but Utah has the momentum and the attitude.

Cinderella Utes? Go ahead. Make their day.