Only three previous times since 1990 has Kentucky opened a season by losing four or more of its first 12 games. With an 8-4 record this season, the Cats retain high hopes.
"When all of us are playing to our potential, you'll be able to tell we're one of the best teams in the nation," guard Ryan Harrow said. " ... We'll be where everybody wants."
Harrow seemed to acknowledge how low-profile opponents helped steady UK early this season when he said of a bright future, "We'll definitely be winning more games against better competition."
Harrow cautioned reporters from linking the optimism only to greater production from freshman Alex Poythress.
"It's not just Alex, it's all of us," he said. "We all have things we have to improve on. Once we (improve), we'll be that Kentucky team that's back in the rankings and back in the running for the (national) championship."
Kentucky has not been ranked in The Associated Press media top 25 poll the last three weeks.
In each of the three most recent seasons that began with four or more losses in the first 12 games, Kentucky fell out of the national rankings, then compiled 12-4 records in Southeastern Conference play and received a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2007-08, Billy Gillispie's first season as coach, Kentucky won six of its first 12 games. The Cats finished 12-4 in the SEC, which was good for second place behind Tennessee in the Eastern Division. Unranked UK lost to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2000-01, Kentucky was 7-5 after 12 games. A 12-4 SEC record got the Cats a share of the SEC Eastern Division championship. UK then won the league tournament title and was ranked No. 9 when it lost to Southern California in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
In 1999-00, Kentucky was 8-4 after 12 games. The Cats went on to win a share of the SEC Eastern Division and regular-season championships. No. 19 UK lost to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky finishes the non-conference portion of its schedule Wednesday night against Eastern Michigan. SEC play begins at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10.
Eastern Michigan Coach Rob Murphy served as an assistant at Syracuse for seven seasons. Maybe that explains the expectation that Kentucky will see a lot of 2-3 zone Wednesday night.
Like Syracuse, Eastern Michigan prides itself on defense and relies upon a 2-3 zone. The Eagles also have a transfer from Syracuse, 7-footer Da'Shonte Riley, to anchor the zone. Riley averages 2.9 blocks.
In the last NCAA update of statistics (Dec. 16), Eastern Michigan ranked 27th nationally in points allowed, 20th in blocks and 33rd in field goal defense.
Murphy, like Riley a native of Detroit, made an immediate splash as Eastern Michigan's new coach last season. A team picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference's West Division instead won it.
Eastern Michigan (7-5) has struggled to score. The Eagles average only 59.4 points.
Earlier this season, Eastern Michigan lost 84-48 at Syracuse and 93-54 at Michigan. The Eagles had a combined 18 assists and 42 turnovers in those two games.
Syracuse blocked 10 shots and made 17 steals against Eastern Michigan.
Besides Riley, other transfers contributing to Eastern Michigan's team this season include 6-8 forward Glenn Bryant, who played two seasons for Arkansas, and 6-6 wing Daylen Harrison, who began his college career at Wyoming.
Harrison attended the same Akron, Ohio, high school as LeBron James: St. Vincent-St. Mary.
His heady play befits a chemistry major with a grade-point average of better than 3.5.
Eastern Michigan guard Jalen Ross has plenty of NBA lineage.
His father, Frank, his grandfather, Sam, and a brother, Frank, were drafted by NBA teams.
Ross leads Eastern Michigan in assists (3.3 apg).
Eastern Michigan is in Ypsilanti, Mich., which is in the greater Detroit area. ... Former Cincinnati Post sportswriter Victoria Sun is Eastern Michigan's Director of Basketball Operations. ... Tom Hart and Joe Dean Jr. will call the game for ESPNU.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com