Gathered together for the first time, three of the four incoming UK basketball freshmen will compete in this weekend's Derby Classic All-Star game in Louisville. The collective response to questions posed by reporters appeared to be, "We are going to win, so stop fretting."
A nice sentiment, and one I echo, but a few too many Kentucky fans, mired in pessimism after a frustrating and disappointing year, aren't hearing it. They either cannot escape the immediacy of losing, or stubbornly refuse to accept the necessity of hope. It's the rite of the fan: "Next year, we can win it all."
To some, the idea that next year's Kentucky team, down a Rondo and a Sparks, can somehow be among the nation's elite is laughable, foolhardy, borderline insulting (though this latter response I still don't quite grasp). But why not? Give me 40 reasons why not and I'll show you 50 why so.
We as fans may never really know why the '05-06 Wildcats imploded. Theories abound like the season's missed shots, but one thing is clear -- they stopped enjoying the game.
Watch Rajon Rondo in any contest after the Kansas game. It was a chore to come out there. A cadre of the more negative fans likes to point to Tubby Smith as the cause for Rondo's unhappiness, and maybe they are right. Or maybe the pressures, both media and fan-oriented, got to these kids. Or maybe it was an internal rift, as some have suggested. Whatever the reason, the fans could see it, even with their limmited window into the team's psyche.
Immediately after the UCONN NCAA loss, Tubby promised changes, but other than the not-that-surprising exodus of Rondo to the pro ranks and of freshman Adam Williams to a school more fitting for his development, there has been no real movement. Rekalin Sims may or may not leave. Ditto Lukasz Obrzut.
About all we know so far is that assistant coach Reggie Hanson pursued the Murray State job (didn't get it), and that assistant Scott Rigot is probably passing his resume around, too. Whether this means impending departure or merely insistent looking, we cannot know. And, dear fellow Big Blue fan, don't let the so-called insiders on internet and sports radio tell you otherwise -- we don't know.
But what if nothing changes? What if, after all that talk, and all that hand-wringing and brow-furrowing, we end up with the same staff, and the same team plus the freshmen? Are we looking at another 10-loss campaign?
My answer: not likely.
I cannot deny some nervousness in that prediction, and some blue-tinted vision, but the assembled parts -- just like this past year -- don't add up to a worthless whole. I will never truly understand why this past team didn't play up to our standards. From a talent standpoint, there was room to move in both directions, good and bad, but we had more or equal talent than UCLA, who made the Final Four. We had more or equal talent to many of the Sweet 16 teams. We had enough good players, if not an excess of great ones, to be far better than 22-13. And next year will be no different.
From a pure talent standpoint, the '06-07 Cats hoopsters should be upgraded, if left wanting for experience. Even if no one else leaves or is shown the door, the influx of talented frosh would look something like this:
Jodie Meeks for Brandon Stockton
Derrick Jasper for Rajon Rondo
Michael Porter for Patrick Sparks
Perry Stevenson for Ravi Moss
You could certainly bicker about the short-term gap in game experience, but subbing in Meeks' scoring ability and Stevenson's defensive strengths for Stockton's limited offense and Moss' size differences, you can make a case that the Cats should be improved. Obviously, the loss of Sparks leaves some major questions. It's not like this past team was a good shooting team, and Sparks, however streaky, was the best clutch shooter, followed closely by Moss.
However, Porter is a completely unknown quantity, and both Jasper and Meeks could fill needed roles. Not to mention the fact that Rondo's real replacement isn't a freshman at all, but rather junior-to-be Ramel Bradley, who, finally unleashed, will have the starting job to lose at the point.
This doesn't really even get into the real deficiences of last year's team, of course: the paint. But with Randolph Morris around for the summer, and for a whole season, and with probable increased playing time for gangly but emerging Jared Carter, one can only hope the inconsistency and mediocrity that plagued the UK middle all season will be greatly reduced.
UK fans love to fret. It's as much a part of being a UK fan as gloating over a win or coveting another team's success. But fretting won't change reality, and the reality of the situation is that next season is a fresh start: for Tubby Smith, for Ramel Bradley, for Shagari Alleyne, for Rekalin Sims, for the UK fans, for the UK program and for all these freshmen.
One can either assume that good things will happen or that it will be miserable, but without an abundance of actual facts, I'll stick firmly with the positive. After all, there's always next year.