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Optimism vs. Realism: Prediction time!

Well, with the opener against Miami (OH) just hours away, it's about time I got off my fence-sitting ass and showed the world I have a pair. Predictions nearly always come back to haunt you, unless you predicted Britney would dump Kevin, which was the equivalent of calling the USA-Grenada war for the Americans.

This year's team is seriously thin depth-wise, but for Tubby Smith, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Smith has become a bit notorious to the denizens of Big Blue Nation for over-subbing, for yanking players at the first sign of a bad shot, a missed assignment, an anything. Forced to let juniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley play through jitters, overexuberence or a rusty start, Smith may find he has some All-Conference performers on the floor rather than stewing on the bench.

Also because of depth, this squad will run a lot of youth out there in the four scholarship freshmen. Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper look like they could be a godsend, especially Meeks, who doesn't seem to lack for attacking the basket and who is physically ready to play in any conference.

Wednesday surprise starter Perry Stevenson will, at times, wow and disappear, as freshmen are wont to do. He'll follow double-doubles with non-scoring games, and he won't be immune to the Tubby stare of death either. His other freshman teammate, Michael Porter, will spell Bradley and -- if Porter can hit his open threes -- could get some Cameron Mills-esque time as "the guy the other team didn't scout."

But, interestingly, the real unknowns on this year's Cats are not the new bodies, nor even the lone sophomore (the injured Jared Carter). They are, in fact, the longest tenured Wildcats: seniors Sheray Thomas, Lukasz Obrzut and Bobby Perry.

At this stage, most fans have a pretty good idea what Woo is going to bring to the floor. (Hint: it will involve stiffness) Perry has raised his profile with two standout NCAA games to cap last season, and while his exhibition performances were a mixed bag (17 points followed by a big, fat zero), it's clear that the shy Perry who deferred to Patrick Sparks, Chuck Hayes and anyone else is no longer likely to show. An Allen Edwards imitation from Perry is perhaps the best scenario there is, while a zone busting ability to hit a few threes would add a new dimension.

While he won't play in the opener, due to whatever stupid thing he did to get on Tubby's bad side, Thomas is one guy who could change the team dynamic tremendously. Never much more than a useful piece, the man from Quebec's consistent inconsistency has killed his image among fans, who mostly think of him as a guy who should be playing at Virginia or Virginia Tech. While a lot of us gave him a mulligan for his tumor surgery (as well we should have), fans are ready to see Thomas earn his keep, and not with a 5 point, 5 rebound performance. That we've seen.

If Thomas can give 6-10 boards per outing and give a little interior defense, this team can be much better. Because Stevenson is still so raw, he'll be ineffective in certain matchups. If Thomas can provide that missing edge, the frontcourt has new life.

Meanwhile, junior Randolph Morris will be the man in the middle. As stated before, Morris has a lot to prove -- to himself, to UK fans, to NBA scouts. And judging by interviews, he seems to get this. But getting it and doing it are different things, and it's time for Morris to take that chip on his shoulder and turn it into results. No more stupid fouls, no more taking plays off. Turn it on, let it flow. If Morris plays to his potential, he is the best UK center in a generation. If he doesn't, he's Marquis Estill in an All-American's body.

What I see before me is a more cohesive, better grounded team. Despite Morris' NBA dreams, no one is looking ahead at anything other than UNC, Louisville, Florida, et al. And that's outstanding, if true. Unlike some, I don't worry about Tubby's coaching, I worry about the makeup of the team. That seems to be Smith's Achilles.

The Cats can (and I believe will) win Maui. Depaul is overrated (Big East team, surprise, surprise ... ) and Memphis and UCLA are still getting their legs after major personnel losses. Georgia Tech is extremely young, if athletic, and Purdue is Purdue. This doesn't mean I think that it will be easy, far from it. But a sweep of three games in Maui, plus (clearly) a win in the two opening games, and the Cats are back on the national radar. That would appease UK fans and team alike.

Despite thoughts to the contrary, Kentucky won't win every game this year. A few losses will be irritating (Georgia, Vandy and South Carolina are always lurking), and some wins invigorating (Alabama, Florida and North Carolina are all ripe with overconfidence), but that's a college basketball season.

My early prediction? 12-2 by conference season, with a loss to one of three big name teams and one surprise (UMass, maybe?). In the SEC slate, I expect a few losses given that the league is the class of the country, with five preseason top 25 teams and three in the top 11.

The highlights:

  • Cats will split with Florida, home and home.
  • Cats will drop one game to either South Carolina or Arkansas.
  • Cats will beat Alabama at Bama.
  • Cats will sweep Georgia, Vandy and Tennessee.
I look for a 13-3 or 12-4 conference mark, and a tie for the SEC East title with the Gators, who will lose some conference games. Don't let those 60-point wins over directional schools lull you into the "Katz-ian" love sleep they have at ESPN. The SEC tournament is winnable for the Cats, depending on the draw, of course. Making the finals would guarantee UK a No. 2 seed, which is what I would hope for come tournament time.

If Kentucky emerges from the regular season at 25-5 or 24-6 and loses before the finals of the SEC tourney, a 3 seed is more likely. And not horrible. Obviously, this is all speculation. Maybe the freshmen mature quickly and the Cats surprise everyone. Or maybe the talent just isn't there and Kentucky limps home to a disappointing 10-loss season (highly unlikely to me). It's why predictions are worthless.

But, I have high hopes for Crawford and Meeks in particular, and with some scoring punch and better chemistry, this team can win. And despite the protestations of a few, the chance of a favorable NCAA draw doesn't rule out a Final Four ... seriously.

Last year, the Florida Gators were picked in the 50-75 range in the preseason, were not among the top 50 preseason teams in either the AP or Coaches' polls. But they had heart, chemistry and raw talent. This team has those qualities, too, if as yet unseen scoring ability. Defense will be slower to come, but if these Cats can find their soul, then with Smith's Xs and Os ability, there is a big upside.

For me, it's not Final Four or bust. It's just getting back to being a winning team, with winning attitude and hustle. Too much is made of the end goal and not enough of the trip there, and that's a shame.

This year's Wildcats can be very good, and I expect that more than a few pundits, talking heads and, yes, embittered Kentucky faithful will be proven short-sighted when all is said and done.

Then again, who believes predictions anyway?