With recruiting news at a trickle, football in neutral, everything else non-existent (or boring) and me feeling guilty for a lack of good updates, it's time to focus our view a little.
In the first of several parts, we at Sea of Blue take a few moments to examine in-depth the roster for the upcoming UK hoops season. First up ...
Much maligned, and for valid reasons given what transpired over the course of last season's 22-13 campaign, the Kentucky frontcourt could end up being the Wildcats' biggest strength, their Achilles' heel or anything in between.
While depth will be an on-going problem, especially if Randolph Morris cannot keep from imitating Gimel Martinez at the Ultimate Fighting Championships and stay on the floor, all the principles save one (freshman Perry Stevenson) have played minutes, and have talent.
The probable starter at small forward, senior Bobby Perry, opened eyes nationally with a 20-plus points per game average in the NCAAs last spring. After having played out of position at the four spot much of his career, the crafty Perry should find more room on the wing returned to his natural position. At 6'8", and because of his playing out of position for so long, Perry has strong rebounding instincts, especially on the offensive glass. And when his three-point shooting is on, the Wildcats are a completely different team offensively. A good defender, Perry is the senior most likely to assume the mantle of leadership Tubby Smith's best teams have always had (Erik Daniels, Allen Edwards, Chuck Hayes, etc.).
Thus, Perry's biggest contribution this season may not be his shooting, rebounding or defense, but rather his leadership on the floor and in the huddle.
While it's too early to say, much of Kentucky's success or failure this season, especially early on in Maui and against the Tarheels, Hoosiers and Cardinals, could depend on sophomore Jared Carter's rapid development. Coach Smith himself has taken time to praise Carter's work ethic, and if results are tangible on the floor, the 7'3" Bluegrass native could allow a bigger, but mobile, frontcourt to feature less one-dimensional scoring.
In limited time after the return of Morris following suspension last season, Carter endeared himself to Big Blue nation with his good instincts around the hoop and soft hands. Unlike his competition for the center spot, Carter shows offensive promise, and with a reliable jump hook to complement his already strong shot blocking, Carter could break out in '06-07.
UK fans, notorious for overhyping unknown players, are extremely optimistic about Carter's role next year, and that could come to backfire if Carter isn't capable of playing major minutes due to stamina, ineffectiveness or foul troubles.
Carter's improvement could thus impact UK's best frontcourt player, the junior Morris, tremendously. If Jared can play 20-30 minutes a game, Morris suddenly becomes one of the SEC's best scoring power forwards, an offensive threat at the four that doesn't rebound consistently, but who has a deadly short jumper from the elbow.
Many folks forget that Morris missed all summer practices with the team, and by Tubby's account showed up out of shape after his ill-fated pro tryouts. A leaner, fitter Morris should challenge for All-SEC honors, and as mentioned before, if he can rein in his tendency for cheap fouls, Morris can -- and in my opinion will -- have UK fans talking about him in the same breath as beloved previous Kentucky frontcourt greats such as Sam Bowie, Mel Turpin and Jack Givens. Morris is that talented.
But optimism aside, the big kid from Georgia has much to prove after a disappointing end to the season last year. Morris tired visibly in the tournament, a result of a late start to the season and the team's overreliance on his offensive skills.
An experienced starter for much of his career, senior Lukasz Orbzut may not play as many minutes this season with a game-ready Morris and an improved Carter, or he might start. Tubby traditionally rewards the players that "grade out" the highest defensively and doing the dirty work, and the man known as Woo has already started more games than most fans ever thought possible, so why doubt him now?
Originally billed as a face-up scoring seven-footer, Woo has adjusted somewhat roughly to being a back-to-the-basket player, showing a hesitancy and ineffectiveness offensively. He rarely looks to score, and when he does the results can be ugly, to say the least. However, Woo uses good fundamentals on defense and doesn't get caught out of position much. His real trouble is rebounding, where as a legit 7'0" player, he should be more effective than last season's 56 rebounds, which was almost half that of Ravi Moss and a quarter the total of the 6'1" Rajon Rondo.
An other enigma up front is fellow senior Sheray Thomas, whose shooting versatility can surprise opponents. Thomas came to UK and showed immediate promise before being shelved by a health condition (tumor). Whether it was the time off, the loss of weight or something else entirely, Thomas has never showed much consistency in his three years, seemingly following every "breakout" game with a forgettable one. Getting 5-7 points a game from Thomas, in addition to some quality bench minutes spelling Morris or Perry, would give Tubby much more flexibility, not to mention some outside scoring pop.
The final piece of the kentucky frontcourt puzzle is possibly its biggest unknown. Stevenson, a 6'9" gangly stringbean athlete, arrives with strong prep credentials, prinipal among them his double-digit blocks average. In the wake of LSU's Tyrus Thomas saga, nearly everyone is on the hunt for the next Thomas, and UK feels it may have him in its own Louisiana native.
Stevenson is not expected to log heavy minutes, but contrary to public opinion, Tubby has shown a willingness to play those who perform deefensively and do the things that may not show up in the stat line. If Stevenson can provide weakside defensive help and a few putback dunks, liven the crowd and grab a few rebounds to boot, he could find himself on the Rupp Arena floor, and a place in UK fans' loyal hearts. Despite the well-publicized 'whiffs' the UK coaching staff has had on recent big men (Hansbrough, Wright et al.), Stevenson is no slouch, and he could provide some crucial depth to an experienced, but thin, UK frontcourt.
Stay tuned for similar looks at the UK backcourt, coaching staff and more.