The seemingly interminable wait is over. Kentucky basketball is back, and none too soon.
How many more recruiting "updates" can you stomach? How many more discussions of Tubby's pros and cons can a human honestly partake in? How many times can one man throw Shagari Alleyne under the bus?
Tomorrow night, the Wildcats welcome Lindsey Wilson to Rupp Arena for the first exhibition game of the 2006-07 season. In addition to the sheer anticipation that accompanies the start of UK hoops, there are several poignant storylines to pay attention to as well.
 Juniors mint?
While Bobby Perry may be the senior leader, and while fellow fourth-years Sheray Thomas and Woo Obrzut must play key roles all season, the talent and core of this edition of the Big Blue is clearly in the junior class.
Randolph Morris will be the focal point of the UK attack, the trunk through which the halfcourt offense flows. The big man from Georgia has a lot riding on this season -- redemption from the UK faithful and, probably more pertinent to him, redemption in the eyes of the NBA execs whose lack of interest a year-plus ago necessitated Big Randy's return in the first place.
Joe Crawford takes over for Patrick Sparks as the starting shooting guard. This is a huge piece of the Cats' puzzle, as off-guard was JoeC's natural position in high school, when he was the top ranked two-guard to go to college in the fall of 2004. Crawford will appear later on this list, and I see him as a linchpin both for his skills and for his leadership.
The point guard position is all Ramel Bradley's now, with Rajon Rondo suiting up in Celtics green. Bradley's shoot first, shoot later reputation belies what are genuinely strong passing skills. He has a playground flair to his game that can be equal parts exhilarating and maddening. But he is NBA-level talented from a skills perspective, and the job is his to lose.
These three very well could be the top scorer, leading rebounder and number one assists man on the team. Their maturation from talented prospects to legit college stars has to happen now if the Wildcats are to have any shot of capturing the SEC title, or more.
 Assume the Position
Tubby Smith, whether out of necessity or desire, has made a habit in recent years of playing guys out of position. At times -- such as the 2003-04 season -- the gambit has caught teams off-guard. The Daniels at center experiment worked. UK's loss to UAB in the second round that year was not due to a lack of a true center.
But in the end, such gimmick ploys when relied on heavily are almost always destined to fail. Look at the trouble Villanova, whose four-guard offense was the subject of what seemed to be 2,000 ESPN articles last season, had with the big front line of Florida.
Thus it is important to watch as this season develops how Tubby settles on a lineup. Will he go with Jared Carter or Woo at the center spot, eschewing speed? Or will one of the freshmen push his way into the starting five, forcing Smith to decide if a smaller, faster lineup is in order?
 Ministers of Defense?
Smith and his coaching staff have already seen the defensive lapses. They're keenly aware of the lack of interior switches and the mental slip-ups. Rest assured, wind sprints and new strength coach Scott Holsopple will cure a few ailments.
But perhaps no single thing was as damning last season as the lack of defensive intensity, and the subsequent lack of results. Smith is a defensive coach, first and foremost. The offense runs off the ball-line defense. Without stops, steals and deflections, the team is reduced to pounding the ball into the floor while guys stare at him. I don't have to tell you how aggravating that is to watch.
While it's unlikely this year's Cats have the depth or, frankly, the interest in a return to 2003's caliber of lock down defense, a passable impression of that year's team focus would work wonders. And remember, that team didn't have any focus until they went into Memorial Gym at Vandy and discovered themselves.
Could history repeat itself? Let's hope it doesn't have to click that late in the year.
 Meet the Press(ure)
After last season's 22-13 debacle, in which, I probably don't have to remind you, Preston LeMaster and Brandon Stockton replaced Rondo and Crawford at times down the stretch, much is riding on this year.
One thing that is not at stake, however much some malcontents would have you believe, is Tubby Smith's job. However you want to look at it, Smith is not going to be fired. His performance, while uneven over the last few years, has more than warranted a few bumps. He doesn't deserve to get canned, and in my opinion, there's no chance of it happening, assuming there are no NCAA violations or legal issues.
But the pressures of not winning up to Kentucky's demanding standards are another matter. Pressure can be applied without the Athletic Director having to do anything. And Smith is undoubtedly a man with options. A disappointing season could work itself out, with Smith reading the writing on the wall and/or moving on.
But despite his high profile, Tubby isn't the only member of the Big Blue with a lot to prove. Smith's assistants have been much maligned, and with a few top recruits still up in the air, a lot is at stake. Assistants, even at a top prorgam like UK's, have to prove their worth to move on. While David Hobbs may not be worried about upward mobility, younger assistants Reggie Hanson and Scott Rigot surely are. Leaving under pressure is not the best way to impress future employers.
Similarly, for NBA hopefuls Morris, Crawford and Bradley, a standout season could put them back on the professional map. A subpar one could slam a lid on their short-term pro futures.
 Not-so-Great Expectations
While there is a good deal of pressure on the Cats heading into the season, they arrive sincerely under the radar. The ESPN/Coaches' poll has them at No. 23. Many print publications have them lower than that, a few in the 30s.
While I happen to think that sort of downgrading is laughable -- you honestly believe Creighton, this year's George Mason and Cal should beat this Kentucky team? -- it does afford Smith something he has used to great effect in the past: the ever-so-effective chip on the shoulder.
For all the expectations the Big Blue Nation places on its team, this year's team is unweighted by similar expectations on the national stage. A few wins in Maui and a surprise against a young North Carolina team and the Cats are in the conversation big time. A blowout win over a good team and folks are talking 'sleeper.'
While there are plenty of UK fans who think the Wildcats should never be sleepers, it's happened before, and can happen again. And Smith does some of his best work when backed into a corner. Witness the SuffoCats after Team Turmoil, and the 2005 Shoulda-woulda-coulda Elite Eight team after the disappointment of the UAB loss.
All in all, it's set to be another season full of intrigue. One thing about Tubby Smith's tenure at Kentucky, it's not boring, even (or maybe especially) when the offense might occasionally seem that way.
So bring it on, Mr. (or Mrs.) Wilson.