A very early look at Kentucky's place in the SEC for 2008-09 -- Part 2

In the first part of this series, I began a very premature SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the 2008-09 UK basketball team as it relates to the SEC.  In that first part, I looked at strengths and weaknesses.  Today, I will focus on the opportunities and threats that next year's team will likely face. 

Opportunities and threats tend to be more strategic and less tactical than strengths and weaknesses, and that turns out to be the case for Kentucky's SWOT analysis as well.  You will note less player-level dialog and a much broader perspective here.  So without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, here we go:

Opportunities

Opportunities abound for Kentucky next year, and I am just going to hit a few of the big ones.  Obviously, many of these opportunities apply not only to the SEC, but on a national scale as well, and most of these are "big picture" or macro rather than micro opportunities.

  1. An SEC regular-season championship -- I believe next year's team has a real chance at this.  Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State and Alabama are the teams that I see fighting it out for the SEC regular season title.  Tennessee looks very tough, but their losses will definitely make them more vulnerable next year.  Florida will be better next year, but how much is a bit of an open question.  If Speights does not return, I think they will have trouble replacing him.  Alabama looks great on paper, but we all know that they tend to underperform.  Mississippi State, however, is just as capable of winning it as Tennessee, particularly if Jamont Gordon returns.

    The SEC will be a serious dogfight next year between those three or four teams, I believe, and Kentucky has about an even chance with the rest of them to come out on top.  I give a very slight edge to Tennessee over Kentucky and MSU, with Florida a close fourth.

  2. Re-enter the national picture through the SEC -- The last three years, getting regularly beaten by Vanderbilt and Florida both at home and away has seriously hurt the perception of Kentucky as a powerhouse program.  Florida will always be seen (unless they win a couple more championships in basketball) as a football school, and they still get relatively little overall respect for their basketball program from the Great Powers, which used to include Kentucky.  But not for the last three years.

    This is the first year that Kentucky has a genuine chance to reverse that.  Despite the loss of half our scoring, we will be returning the co-FOY in Patrick Patterson and a likely all-SEC guard in Jodie Meeks.  The potential for this Kentucky team on defense is staggering -- they could truly return us to the days of the Suffocats.  While the SEC will be improved overall from last year, the improvements will be mostly incremental at best.

    In order to return to prominence in the SEC, Kentucky must start to defeat teams like Vanderbilt and Florida both at home and away.  Yes, both are tough, but that is what it takes.  No more 41-point drubbings in Nashville, no more close losses in Gainesville.  If Kentucky wants to be the first word uttered when talking about the SEC again, it is going to have to earn it.  Next year represents an opportunity to start that process.

  3. Return the swagger -- Kentucky has not had that swagger, that "We are UK!" kind of self-confidence in three years, despite the best efforts of Ramel Bradley's brash personality.  Until the last three years, there was a surreal quality about UK basketball, one of those intangible things that would give them an advantage in every SEC, or for that matter, any, game they played.  That advantage has been replaced by the apotheosis of drudgery, like every game is against a superior foe, even when it isn't. 

    I'm sure most of you have seen the Austin Powers movies where his "Mojo" was taken away.  That is how Kentucky looks to me since 2005.  That indefinable, enigmatic, almost mystical quality that formerly defined Kentucky, that "Mojo," has been absent lately, particularly against SEC foes.  Even last year during the Wildcat SEC resurgence, every game was a kind of a grim death-match in which the Cats were always on the brink.  2008-09 feels to me like the first time in a while the Cats have a chance to reclaim their Mojo and once again strike fear into league opponents.

  4. Unite the fan base -- Despite the travails and success of Gillispie's first year at Kentucky, the jury is still out on his effectiveness.  Most Kentucky fans have gotten over the horrible out of conference schedule from last year that saw us lose home games to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.  The gritty resurgence of the Cats during the SEC season rescued us from the depths of despair, and the resultant invitation to the NCAA tournament gave  us at least a bit of reason to be optimistic, even though we were "one and done" for the first time since 1986.

    There is still lingering resentment among the fans that needs healing, and the only thing that will heal it is success.  Next year represents an opportunity for that healing to begin, and a chance for Gillispie to cement himself firmly in the job.  The coach is still on probation here in Kentucky, but I firmly believe that unless circumstances again conspire to thwart his efforts as multiple major injuries did last year, he will be able to begin bringing Kentucky basketball out of the long night and back to a swift sunrise.

  5. Reclaim a rational "pipeline" -- The monster recruiting class of 2004's strange path to finality has been the subject of both consternation and euphoria among the Kentucky faithful.  Never in my memory can I recall a single class producing so much disappointment, controversy, confusion and inspiration.  While I am sad to see our two seniors depart, a part of me is happy the long and sometimes torturous saga of the 04's is over.

    With that, Gillispie is trying to build a better "pipeline" than we have had, a natural progression of teams to the ultimate goal of a national championship contender.  As our new players develop, we are beginning to see a truer transition from year to year, rather than the fits and starts we have seen in the last three.  Seeing year-to-year improvement is something that we haven't seen in a while, particularly in our SEC efforts.

Threats

Unfortunately, threats abound in next year's team, both from without and from within.  We can hope that none of them materialize, and try to minimize their impact, but as I will explain, many will be beyond our control.  Some of these threats are not very pleasant to think about, but we have to face the reality in front of us.

  1. Lack of a point guard -- DeAndre Liggins is very likely the best pure point guard we have recruited since Rajon Rondo.  Unfortunately, as of this writing he has not fully qualified to matriculate to UK next year.

    This is a very serious threat to Kentucky's season.  While Michael Porter can no doubt man the position for stretches, unless he undergoes radical improvement this summer, he will not be an SEC-quality starting point guard.  He should be a good back-up to Liggins, but without Liggins, our point guard strategy is severely weakened.  Should Jasper defy conventional wisdom and return to the Bluegrass, this threat would be greatly mitigated.

    Many will point out the fact that Kevin Galloway has point-guard skills, and in fact played the point for his JUCO team.  That may be so, but my experience is that the most difficult transition between a JUCO and Division 1 is at the one spot.  Plus, I am convinced that Gillispie brought Galloway mainly as a 3.  We needed to improve ballhandling, and with Galloway, we improved both our ballhandling and overall size.  But only if Liggins makes it to campus.

  2. Injuries to scorers -- Whether or not we have sufficient overall scoring is important, but not critical.  My feeling is that Kentucky has recruited players that can make this the best defensive team in the entire NCAA.  We will not need as many scorers if we keep the other team from putting it in the basket and take good care of the basketball.  If we do that, we will break down the defense and get good shots close to the basket, much as we did last year earlier on.

    But with only two serious scoring threats, we are highly vulnerable to injury.  If Patterson or Meeks, both of whom are coming off surgeries in the post-season, go down with injuries, it is very hard to see where out baskets will come from.  Kentucky must develop a third and even fourth option very early next year.  It could come from one of the JUCOs, or Stevenson, or Darius Miller.  But we must develop one or be very vulnerable to injury.

  3. The JUCO curse -- Kentucky had very limited success with junior college players since Rodney Dent went down at Vanderbilt.  Let us hope that Billy Gillispie's JUCOs deliver.  If they don't, it is going to be a struggle again this year.  The JUCOs don't have to deliver big numbers on offense, but we do need them to rebound, pass, set screens and defend.  In short, they need to do the little things that will enable our more talented players to put the ball in the basket.

  4. Another early-season funk -- I know none of us are thinking this, but if UK struggles in the non-conference season again this year, the Big Blue Nation will come unglued.  It is possible for even a proud program like Kentucky to survive one such trauma every decade or so, but another one will surely create turmoil among the fans and calls for the coach's head.  Angry detractors will point to two seasons of struggle as proof that Gillispie is not a UK-caliber coach, rumors will begin to resurface, Louisville Cardinal schadenfreude will drive Kentucky fans to the brink of sanity and life around the Commonwealth will become very unpleasant for the Blue and White.

    As I noted above, the Kentucky fan base needs to be able to rally around the UK coach.  Last year, we were just able to do that because of a gritty run through the SEC, but nobody wants to see that kind of grind-it-out, living-on-the-brink basketball at Kentucky on a consistent basis.  If winning basketball does not return in the early season next year, the restive fan base may well develop into a huge distraction for the team.  Kentucky fans desperately need to see a return to normalcy in the Kentucky program, and another bad start could drive all this latent frustration to the surface in a rush.

  5. Decommitments from early recruits -- Nothing will get the press more fired up than if one or more of Gillispie's very early recruits like Avery or Zollo change their mind in the middle of the season.  That will ignite the whole "How young is too young?" debate all over again,  and produce a genuine distraction to both Gillispie and the team.

    It isn't fair that Kentucky is being held up as the poster child for this debate, especially since they were hardly the first to do it.  However unfair, that's what has happened, and if it blows up in the middle of the season, we are looking about weeks and weeks of negative press, Jerry Tipton and John Clay I-told-you-so's, and general mayhem at press conferences.  That is a threat to our success, because a distracted coach is not the most effective coach.

  6. A mid-season defection -- As threats go, this is relatively minor but not insignificant.  When you are in your first few years of coaching, particularly your first couple, perceptions really matter.  If one of our recent recruits goes the way of Alex Legion, it will be a definite distraction to the team and the coaching staff.  Once again, people in the media will begin questioning Gillispie's methods, much as we saw last year.

Fortunately, many of these threats like 4, 5 and 6, while real, do not appear terribly likely.  What we need more than anything this year is to compete for the SEC championship.  Even though we did that last year, nobody ever really considered UK a threat to actually win.  With Tennessee somewhat weaker this year and Florida and Kentucky stronger, the ensuing chaos should give us a decent chance to come out on top.

Kentucky fans are truly anxious to get this team back to the front page of the top 25, and although we aren't terribly likely to do that in 2008-09, getting into the top 25 and perhaps the top 20 ought to be very, very doable.

This completes the SWOT analysis of the 2008-09 UK basketball team.  Next, we will tie it all together in Part 3 and, in light of this analysis, figure out where Kentucky is likely to wind up.

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