So how does Kentucky fit into the SEC equation for 2008-09? Earlier this month, we looked at how the SEC is likely to shape up next year, both the Eastern and Western divisions. Now, I think we would like to take a look at how Kentucky fits into the equation. So what I will attempt now is a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on the 2008-09 version of the Cats' chances in the SEC.
Rather than doing one monstrous post, I am going to break this look into three separate posts. The first two will be the SWOT analysis and the last will tie it all together.
Kentucky will inherit some of its strength from returning players and some from the new ones, and at this point we don't know how much or from whom. The end of last year makes it difficult to judge because of the injury to Patterson and the necessity of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley to essentially take over the offense completely. But here is how I see it rigth now:
Quality depth -- Kentucky has numerous new players coming in next year, all of them recruited by Billy Gillispie. They are Kevin Galloway, a junior college player listed as a small forward but with point guard capabilities. Josh Harrellson, a junior college 6'9" 265# power forward with post-up and face-the-basket skills. DeAndre Liggins, a 6'6" point guard with outstanding court vision and an excellent handle. Darius Miller, a 6'6" small forward with solid athleticism, size, a great body and a very mature game.
The biggest benefit these players will add is quality depth. Liggins is a likely starter, but probably not from day one. I expect that he will back up Porter for the first few games, but by the time we get into the hard part of our non-conference schedule, he will be seeing the lions share of the minutes. All the other players will likely be coming off the bench, but they are all the kind of players that are tall, athletic and can handle or rebound the basketball.
So instead of the huge drop-off UK suffered last year when they brought in our subs, this year the Cats aught to have much more consistency between the first and second squads.
A pretty good front line -- Any team with Patrick Patterson on it would have a pretty good front line, even when he was a freshman. Now that he is a sophomore, and with the addition of the New and Improved Perry Stevenson and the aforementioned Josh Harrellson, Kentucky's front line will be high SEC quality and capable. If, in spite of all history so far to the contrary, Jared Carter finds a way to seriously contribute, UK could wind up with the best front line in the SEC top to bottom.
Better ball handling -- Turnovers were a gigantic bugaboo for the Wildcats last year, and if Kentucky is to improve, that statistic must improve. Kentucky was dead last in the SEC last year in turnover margin with an abysmal 15.8 turnovers/game to our opponents 13.1, a -2.71 average. UK was 285th out of 341 total division I teams in that statistic. But with the addition of Liggins, Galloway and Miller, the Cats' ball handling should improve markedly.
Better passing -- This statistic could be radically better or just much better depending on what Derrick Jasper decides to do. If he happens to hang around, I imagine that our assists will go up significantly. Last year, Kentucky was in the bottom three in the SEC in assists at 12.74/game, and was 258th in the nation in assist/TO ratio. In the important assist/made field goal stat, Kentucky was an anemic 192nd.
If Jasper leaves, which appears likely, we should still improve, just not as much as we would if we had a great passer like Jasper. No matter what, we should be better there.
Better rebounding -- Despite the loss of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, who were both excellent rebounding guards, we should improve in this area as well. Liggins and Galloway are both capable rebounders and taller than Crawford or Bradley, and the addition of Josh Harrellson and the New and Improved Perry Stevenson should allow us to make strides from our #7 position in the SEC in rebounding margin.
Efficiency -- Kentucky was a fairly efficient basketball team last year before Patterson got hurt, and I expect the Cats to be even more efficient next season with better passing and better interior offensive presence. I expect most of Kentucky's shots to come from inside the arc, and the Wildcats have the players with the size and skill to score inside.
Overall Defense -- Defense was a strength of last year's team, and the Cats have only gotten bigger and more athletic with the incoming class of players. Billy Gillispie has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that he can get his players to defend as well as anyone. Last year, Kentucky ranked near the top of the SEC in every defensive category except steals, and was 44th in the land in adjusted defensive efficiency. With some serious size and athleticism available at all positions next year, I expect the SEC to have great difficulty scoring on Kentucky.
Built for speed -- Because of improved depth, passing and athleticism, Kentucky next year should be able to get out on an effective break and into early offense much more often than it was last year. I don't expect the Wildcats to become the Tennessee Volunteers, but I do expect Kentucky to run much more often due primarily to Patterson and Liggins. Patterson does a great job with outlet passes, and Liggins is simply one of the best I have seen in years at advancing the ball quickly down the floor with the pass.
Next year's Cats should be able to withstand and even thrive at a much higher tempo because of improved quality depth. With the relative lack of shooting on this team, early offense will likely provide the best chance for a long, athletic team like Kentucky will be next year to get high-percentage looks.
No team goes from season to season without weaknesses either being identified or forced upon them by the loss of graduating players. This year sees UK lose 34 points/game on average out of 68.5, which by my math comes to roughly 50% of the scoring. So I see Kentucky's weaknesses like this:
Perimeter shooting -- Kentucky will return only one proven perimeter scorer, the injured Jodie Meeks. After that, we have to go to Michael Porter to find our next best outside shooter, and quite frankly, he has yet to prove he can score consistently. None of the players that we are bringing on have proven themselves beyond the arc, although Darius Miller does have good form on his jumper and should be able to develop into a threat from 3-point range. But realistically, the Cats simply aren't getting any help there. Meeks will be the go-to bomber unless someone else steps up, and that is a definite weakness.
Kentucky was one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the nation at 54th overall thanks to Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. With only Meeks back, Kentucky definitely needs someone to step up in this area.
Experience and leadership -- We lost all our senior leadership last year, and even though Jared Carter will technically be a senior, he is so rarely in the game that he could not lead even if he knows how. Meeks, Stevenson, Porter and Jasper (if he hangs around) will help as juniors, but of those, only Derrick Jasper has two solid years of varsity game experience, and odds are he won't be here. The rest have either played sparingly during the two years they have been here, or have been injured.
Patrick Patterson will supply a great deal of leadership, especially in the area of intensity. But he is still only a sophomore, and that matters. Very few teams in the SEC have excelled with a vacuum of senior leadership. This is a serious weakness.
On-the-ball defense -- This is really an assumption on my part due to the fact that the Cats will be much bigger and somewhat less quick next year. Add to that our best returning back court player, Jodie Meeks, is anything but a defensive whiz at least so far in his career, and you have a recipe for doubt. With the proliferation of quick, aggressive guards in the SEC who make it a mission to get to the rack and UK's lack of returning back court players and overall quickness deficit, I expect this to be a definite weakness of next year's team.
Overall guard play -- with so many new players in the back court, the overall strength of Kentucky's back court is looking very suspect at the moment. Despite what should be better ball-handling, passing and depth, I can foresee that the combination of a lack of experience and lack of perimeter shooting in the Cats back court will be a definite weakness early in the season. If we see rapid improvement there, it might be a non-factor or possibly even a strength by March, but in the first part of the season, look for the back court to struggle.
- Scoring -- Last year, scoring was a problem because the Cats were too easy to guard with only three proven scorers -- Patterson, Bradley and Crawford. Next year, it will be a lack of proven scorers that once again threatens to make Kentucky a very low-scoring, defensive-oriented team. Despite better athleticism and a deeper bench, there are only two proven scorers on this team -- Patterson and Meeks, and both those worthies are returning from significant injuries. The New and Improved Perry Stevenson may provide us with some scoring punch, but after that, the well looks pretty dry unless one of the JUCO's or Darius Miller steps up and becomes a reliable scorer.
OK, that is a look at the first two elements of my analysis, Strengths and Weaknesses. Next, we will be taking a look at the Opportunities and Threats that face the Wildcats in the SEC in 2008-09. After that, I'll tie it all together and come up with some very, very early projections.
UPDATE Friday 16 May 2008: Due to JL's awesome and unexpected offering (and my own fatigue), I will be postponing the rest of this until Saturday morning sometime. Sorry, chirop1. :-)