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16 and life ...

Much has been made here and elsewhere on Tubby Smith and his assistants' troubles on the recruiting front. The unfortunate side effect of this griping has been the overlooking of this season's incoming class, which is extremely promising, and depending on how the players pan out, could reap huge dividends.

Player evaluation at the high school level is a notoriously vague science. Rewarded are those kids who perform well at certain stages -- big AAU events, shoe company-sponsored summer camps -- while players who perform consistently well in their high school season can often go undervalued. As with all recruiting, much importance is put on potential, on build and size and on 'length.'

Much less attention is paid to several factors that matter much more to coaches: demeanor, defensive instincts and coachability.

This season, a lot of media and fan focus was on the players Kentucky didn't get, a who's who of big-name power forwards, including two who help make up the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in the country (Brandan Wright, Deon Thompson) and one who slipped away to Atlanta (Thad Young).

With the release of Rivals.com's final 2006 team rankings, hopefully a few of Smith & Co.'s detractors will be mollified to see UK's incoming class ranked No. 16 overall -- hardly a whiff, if not exactly a home run.

I have taken brief looks at a few of the incoming freshmen (Episodes I, II and III), while saving my favorite, and the player I believe will make this class a real savior for the Cats, for last.

With this year's scholarship freshmen (plus walk-on Mark Coury), Tubby Smith has filled some needs. And while their pedigree may not be off the charts -- with the possible exception of the West Coast point guard Derrick Jasper -- all are long on talent and coachability. As UK fans have seen in the past, skill and a bad attitude does not overcome hard work and strong values when it comes to Tubby Smith.

Each new player brings special skills to the table, with Jasper a versatile and athletic guard, Jodie Meeks a powerfully built slasher in the Keith Bogans vein, Perry Stevenson a shot blocking menace and Michael Porter your quintessential coach's son leader. All will contribute in big ways to the UK program, the only question is how soon.

The SEC is certainly on the uptick. It currently has the defending national champ in Florida, an up-and-comer in Bruce Pearl's Tennessee, several ubercompetitive rising programs in Arkansas and Alabama and, of course, the bully on the block in Kentucky.

Despite some UK fans' apoplexy, this season's class helps Kentucky back to the top of that heap. Combined with more seasoned vets in Randolph Morris, Bobby Perry and Joe Crawford, and with emerging talents in Ramel Bradley and Jared Carter, these incoming players will infuse loads of enthusiasm and unique ability, not to mention a healthy dose of something Tubby Smith appreciates above all -- intensity.

Ladies and gentlemen, news of the Kentucky program's demise has been greatly exaggerated. Welcome to the Big Blue Nation your future favorite Wildcats.