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The next wave of Kentucky basketball

Every year, a handful of recruits get to sign with their favorite school. And every year, each of those schools is convinced they got the best players, or the most underrated players if you're a UK fan.

For fans as rabid for anything basketball related as UK fans are, the opening of the November signing period has become a bit of a downer. Once the king of the mountain, where famously the Cats almost got Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie in the same year, now Kentucky's program is built differently. Some fans have taken this to mean built not as good, but I think it is built differently.

Seemingly gone with the Rashaad Carruths and Marvin Stones are the AAU darlings, the top-10 kids with questionable work ethics but with eye-popping talent. No more are the players whose entourages include men looking for jobs as collateral. Absent are the superstars whose tattoos outnumber their years spent in college. After a team full of talent imploded on him in a cloud of suspensions, transfers, bruised egos and lazy passes, coach Tubby Smith just seemed like he'd had enough.

The results of Smith's change of heart have been decidedly mixed. The recruiting class that emerged from Team Turmoil included only one scholarship player who could be said to be "Kentucky material" in Oklahoma scorer Kelenna Azubuike. The next best player? Academic walk-on Ravi Moss. But, with an upperclass-laden team playing the "Tubby way" that came a sprained ankle from the Final Four, no one really seemed to notice.

Maybe it was poor scouting or maybe it just didn't seem to matter, but the incoming class for 2003 was full of sleepers -- guys with raw potential, but uncertain current value. As a result of some poor luck (Sheray Thomas' tumor surgery) and some poor work ethic (Shagari Alleyne's revolving doghouse door), the margin for error in the 2003 class was razor thin. And few longtime fans of the Wildcats would really argue that, by Kentucky standards -- even Tubby Smith standards -- the class was a stinker. This isn't meant to savage current seniors Bobby Perry, Thomas and Lukasz Obrzut, but it's true. And in the spring of 2004, another group of hard-working, team-oriented upperclassmen took the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed before falling in a shocking upset to UAB in the second round of the NCAA tournament, UK's first true upset early-round loss since 1994.

In spring 2004, Tubby, perhaps sensing the talent dropoff in his class, reeled in his best on-paper recruiting class. Armed with the 2003 National Coach of the Year Award and two straight No. 1 seeds, convincing current Wildcats juniors (and team core) Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, plus the NBA point guard Rajon Rondo, to matriculate at UK seemed to put the "talent" issue behind Smith. Now he had his stars, and he had his role players.

And at first, everything worked. While another heartbreaker in the Elite Eight left a sour taste in the mouths of Big Blue Nation, only the gloomiest were unable to see the upgrade in the freshman class. But then the bottom fell out.

Gone were "Tubby guys" Chuck Hayes and Azubuike. Now the upperclassmen were those afterthought 2003 players, including a slowed by recovery Thomas and the fun-while-it-lasted Alleyne. And the headache caused by the ill-advised NBA daliances of Morris left Smith in a pickle not seen since the days of probation/LeRon Ellis. This crew didn't play as hard, and they didn't seem to enjoy being on the floor together. For every good play he made, senior transfer Patrick Sparks took a mulligan. For every rebound he grabbed, mercurial sophomore Rondo had a sulk or an exasperated eye roll. And those juniors? They just didn't have much at all. The freshman class consisted of two players who reminded most of the 2003 class -- all upside, no nowside. There were no reinforcements. And a high profile whiff on current UNC All-American Tyler Hansbrough left no wiggle room and no backup plan.

Which brings us to today. early returns on Smith's current crop of freshmen are very promising, and they had better be. With depth issues in the frontcourt after a spate of transfers, and with talent issues in the senior class still as of yet unproven, the four newcomers will be asked to do a lot. Luckily, all four seem to be "Tubby guys."

Meanwhile, recruiting goes on. And on. And on. Tubby, still unwilling or unable to crack the upper tier of Rivals/Scout darlings, has the program and its fans on the edge as top targets Patrick Patterson (consensus top 15) and Jai Lucas (top 25) continue to show signs of backing off earlier interest in the Cats. This doesn't mean they won't sign, but it sure doesn't feel like they are any closer to doing so than they were in mid-October, when a Big Blue Madness crowd did everything short of buying them air fare to show their appreciation. For whatever reason -- maybe he's too nice, or maybe he's just too honest (if there is such a thing), Tubby just can't get the big names to pull the trigger. A recent interview by Lucas at Cats Pause showed a glimmer of this when, when asked directly whether he'd be able to play much his first year, coach Smith did the honest, respectful thing and told the truth: "You only earn PT." The right answer? The truth is always the right answer. And yet, if Lucas goes elsewhere to play immediately, you know the reasons why.

Ever the pragmatist, I am usually one to trust in the basketball brilliance of Smith. But even the pragmatist can see the storm clouds developing. UK is set to sign a good small forward in AJ Stewart of Florida and another hidden gem in center Mike Williams of Virginia (and England). But these are not the guys who step in and make all-conference, at least not on first or second glance. Patterson and Lucas are.

And as UK fans sweat out the decisions of two players seemingly leaning away, former backup targets pick other schools -- Washington, Temple, Indiana. Tubby's margin for error is becoming razor-thin ... again.

I don't know what Lucas will decide next week, or what Patterson (now with new teammate OJ Mayo in his ear) will ultimately see over the course of the year. Will Florida spend the year lapping up Dick Vitale's hype and Joakim Noah's media-love? Or maybe Duke's Josh McRoberts shows Patterson what being a top-20 recruit at Duke can do for your NBA prospects. Or, to be fair, will an under-the-radar Kentucky team in his back yard show Patterson that there's nothing like a UK team on a hot streak?

Impossible to know. But what isn't impossible is that things don't break the Cats' way, and they are left looking once again, waiting for the diamond in the rough, the "Tubby guy" who makes his winter and spring appearance, the late bloomer.

For the casual fan, this may not matter. UK players are the guys who want to be here. For fans of the recruiting game, this is the nightmare scenario. No one knows what will happen, and who, a year from now, will be the newest wave of UK basketball.

But even the patient among us are starting to wonder if Smith can recruit enough blue chippers to combine with his hidden gems. Because while a team of blue chippers may have its egos, its entourages, its potential headaches, a team of hidden gems inevitably includes a few who don't pan out. And with that team, as we now well know, there is no margin for error.

Update [2006-11-9 15:52:37 by JL Blue]:

Mystery man Ramon Harris is set to make it official that he's a Cat, according to reports in Alaska. Harris could be a second semester recruit, though one wonders if Tubby Smith thinks that is the case. In any event, welcome aboard!