As the entire Big Blue Nation collectively holds its breath awaiting word of UK junior guard Jodie Meeks' decision (stay or flee), the reality of what the Wildcat basketball team will be missing in '09 if Meeks opts for the Association is setting-in not unlike the rigor mortis upon Tim Floyds' college coaching career.
At first blush I wasn't too concerned with the loss of Meeks to the NBA: Certainly he's a tremendous talent, but with the heralded newcomers on the way, and the return of Patrick Patterson, my thinking was that Kentucky could lose Meeks and still thrive. And by 'thrive,' I mean seriously contend for a Final Four.
Now though, after examining the 'Meeks leaving' scenario a bit more closely, I've come to the conclusion that Meeks' presence in a UK uni could mean the difference in Big Blue winning its final game, or ending the season with a loss.
Allow me to elaborate.
Losing Meeks means losing ...
Depth at the Two Guard and UK's Best Zone Buster
Anyone who knows anything about the Dribble Drive Motion Offense (DDMO), will proclaim that a zone defense is the DDMO's nemesis. And the most effective way to force an opponent out of the zone, is to shoot them out.
Absent Jodie Meeks (40.6% from behind the arc), UK's most serious outside shooting threat is one Darnell Dodson. Dodson, a junior college transfer (Miami Dade), has yet to play one minute of Division I basketball, much less toil against the likes of North Carolina, Louisville, Indiana, or Tennessee. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Dodson, he was after-all signed (but never played) out of high school by a very good Pittsburgh program, but since, his competition level hasn't been elite-ish.
Color me optimistically curious (if one can be such), but I can't label Dodson a proven commodity. Not yet, anyway.
Sophomore Darius Miller is capable of playing the shooting guard spot, but his three-point shooting was, at best, inconsistent last season (32.7%), although he did end the year strong. Also, his defense, which also improved as the year progressed, isn't yet to the level of D that Meeks is capable of playing: Miller isn't quite as quick as Meeks, and he's beaten off-the-dribble fairly regularly.
I like Miller ... a lot, but he's not in the same area code as Jodie Meeks when it comes to shooting the basketball, and playing solid defense from the two-guard position.
Freshman Jon Hood (2009 Kentucky Mr. Basketball) gives UK a third option at the 'two.' The Madisonville North prospect arrives at UK with a reputation for taking the ball to the rim with confidence and authority. He has also displayed a propensity at the high school level for shooting the long-ball with accuracy (upward of 38% last year).
Of course collegiately, as is true with all freshman, he's as green as the grass on Colin Cowherd's backside.
Suddenly, the need for Meeks seems ... clarified.
I don't mean to paint a bleak picture of a team destitute of talent, but clearly, Meeks as the starting two-guard, playing something around 30 minutes per game, is the prohibitive favorite to win 'scenario I would like most to see come to fruition.' Because, if Meeks is playing for pay in '09, the three 'Cats I mention above will be splitting those crucial minutes.
I'm sure all three players would perform admirably, but there's a certain comfort in knowing that No. 23 has the ball in his hands.
Losing Meeks means a continuation of the ...
The Perimeter Sag
The sag is something all UK fans have become intimately familiar with over the last few years. UK fan, you know the drill: Opponents don't guard the perimeter, they sag back to the blocks, or high post, denying "The Machine" (Patrick Patterson) the pill. I won't dredge up bad recollections with an unpleasant summation of players refusing to shoot even though open, I will only muse this -- Without Meeks, UK risks losing the ability to dribble-drive into unfettered floor space, because without the shooter, the sag will once again become the season's hottest (defensive) style.
With Meeks in Wildcat blue, Patterson and Pals should be able to breathe a bit more freely. And to be honest, I don't think we have yet to see the real Patrick Patterson. But Meeks' return would all but assure that Patterson will have the freedom of movement to display his skill set without two or three defenders in his No. 54 jersey. I think Patterson will find maneuvering his man into an untenable defensive position much easier since he'll be dealing with 'a defender,' instead of multiple bad guys.
The newcomers, though, along with Miller, need to perform to an acceptable level of proficiency from beyond the arc for UK to shed its not-hard-to-guard label. If they do indeed play as advertised, that, coupled with Meeks' projected impact, places UK in a stratosphere of offensive competence not seen in these parts in at least five years.
Actually, five years is probably being conservative.
And finally, the most crucial loss UK will suffer if Meeks leaves is ...
Leadership and Experience
Four of UK's guards for the 2009 season are freshmen/newcomers: John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, both point guards, along with Jon Hood and Darnell Dodson. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller are both sophomores.
Not a wealth of combined experience among that group.
But the glue that will hold that group together as a unit could be Jodie Meeks. He's the only member of the guard corps that has played more than 30 games at the collegiate level; he's the only member of the guard corps that has experienced overwhelming success at the collegiate level; he's the only member of the guard corps that has experienced major setbacks at the collegiate level; he's the only member of the guard corps that has experienced what it's like to carry a team to victory; he's the only member of the guard corps to drop over half-a-hundred points directly on the overly large, sweaty cranium of Bruce Pearl.
Who better to mentor young Mr. Hood? Who knows better than Jodie Meeks what it means to struggle, or have negative events unfairly impact his life?
Who better to guide young guns Wall and Bledsoe?
It has to be Meeks, because there are no other players (with extensive experience) on the '09 UK squad who have encountered guard-specific challenges within a game. Patrick Patterson has shown, repeatedly, that he's a great leader. But he's a big guy, he doesn't have the guard-related experience that Meeks possesses. Therefore, Meeks could be in a position to be the lone voice of experience whispering into that young gun ear.
All of the other losses UK would experience if Meeks turns pro could possibly be made up for with tremendous play by the newbies, but the leadership and experience void will be impossible to fill.
There's just no way around it.
No, I'm not trying to convince Meeks to return. Heck, the possibility of injury would be enough to give me serious pause if I were Meeks. So no, it's his decision to make, no pleas from me. But I do know this ...
I only want him back if his intentions are to hang No. 8. Anything short of that, and I'll gladly thank him for his effort and will-to-win, and wish him well in the pros. But I won't forget the fact that Meeks has been an exemplary student-athlete. He's carried himself with class, even in trying times. He's rehabbed like mad to recover from painful injuries, and he's performed like few other Blue Boys ever have. In his time at UK he's done everything within his power to win basketball games, sadly though, he's played at Kentucky in very unsettling times. For this, he holds no guilt.
I feel confident, if Meeks returns, that John Calipari will be getting a tireless worker, and ferocious competitor who will score, defend, and lead.
Jodie, I wish you only the best, whatever you decide.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!