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Kentucky Basketball 2007: Finding the Way Back Part I -- From Kansas to Relevance

So how does the Kentucky Wildcat basketball team come back from two maddeningly subpar seasons in a row?  We will be looking at just how it will happen over the coming days.

Today, we will focus on our seniors-to-be, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.  So we will begin at the beginning of Joe and Ramel's not-that-excellent adventure.  Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for October 15th 2004 ...

Big Blue Madness, 2004.  The theme -- "This is Kentucky Basketball".  The freshmen -- Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris, widely acclaimed as the #1 recruiting class in the country.  The excitement is everywhere among the big blue faithful as Rajon Rondo amazes 8,000+ supplicants in Memorial Coliseum with an astonishing dunk.  The Cats of 2004 were on their way.

Unfortunately, the "'04" Cats were always "on their way", but seemingly never arrived.  Rondo was a stellar defender and ballhandler, but he couldn't score from the perimeter.  Joe Crawford almost immediately got a case of the "I wants" and made an abortive attempt to transfer.  Bradley contributed some, but not much.  Morris developed slower than expected, but in spite of all this the Wildcats finished a Kelena Azubuike rebound away from the Final Four.  Complicating the disappointing aftermath was the unexplainable decision by Randolph Morris to enter the NBA draft, which understandably ignored him altogether.

The 2005-06 version of the "'04" led cats began with the Morris debacle, much as 2004 began with the Crawford debacle.  Morris' lack of vision cost him half the 2005 season, and Bradley again failed to raise his level of play significantly.  Crawford continued to improve, but only incrementally.  The Wildcats barely limped into the tournament, but did give the highly favored and far more talented UConn Huskies a very stern test before bowing in the second round, thanks mostly to the heroics of senior Patrick Sparks and junior Bobby Perry.  Rondo then leaves for the NBA, and is chosen in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

Then the 2006-2007 season happened.  Hope abounded among the Faithful that the "04's", now juniors and supported by a strong recruiting class, would finally come into their own.  But it didn't happen.  Crawford improved, but didn't become the go-to scorer everyone expected.  Bradley was maddeningly inconsistent, and couldn't seem to find a balance between scoring and passing.  Morris became a great player, but couldn't seem to dominate when he needed to.  Frustration eventually took over and once again the Cats staggered, bloody and bruised, into the tournament, only to be run out by a far superior Kansas in the second round.  Randolph Morris took an unconventional, but ultimately expected path into the NBA, following classmate Rajon Rondo.

So that, my friends, is history.  It is the history of our version of the "'04"'s.  The Wildcat version offers an interesting and bedeviling counterpoint to the more deservedly famous Florida "04's", who led the Gators to two consecutive national championships.  Coming into 2004, you would have bet the Wildcats would have been back to back champions long before the Gators.  You would have lost that bet.

Now the Florida "04's" are all gone to their just deserts in the Association, and Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley are all that remain of our comparably shallower version.  But they bring one thing to the table next year that the Florida 04's never did -- senior status.  And in that majority, they will find their place in Wildcat history.

Ever the optimist, it's hard for me not to believe in these two young men, especially under new leadership from Coach Gillispie.  Very much like the four companions in the Wizard of Oz, the Kentucky "'04"'s always seemed to lack something, and that something held them back.  Rondo, like the Scarecrow, seemed to be short of understanding -- the fundamental understanding of how to maximize his tremendous talent to the best advantage of the team.

Morris, like the Tin Man, always seemed to lack the heart and determination to do more -- it clearly showed in his reluctance to run the floor last year.  Like the Lion, Joe Crawford has yet to find the courage not just to try, but to do, and the inner strength to impose his will upon not only his opponents, but also on his teammates.  Like the Wizard of Oz himself, Ramel desperately desires to be a leader, but doesn't understand that leadership is more about sacrifice than bravado, more about substance than style.  He has to learn that true leadership doesn't need fire and special effects.

Of course, part of the problem was their perception of former UK coach Tubby Smith.  I believe that the players were able to perceive the pressure that Coach Smith was getting from the fans, and his standing suffered in the eyes of the players, except, perhaps, for the freshman and the seniors.

Coaches, by necessity, require respect to be effective -- not just of their person, but of their abilities as well.  Years of toughing out unhappy fans and a growing chorus of media critics had worn down Coach Smith's credibility with some of his own players, likely one more in a long line of reasons why he moved on to Minnesota.  The "'04"'s were the most affected by this diminishing of respect, and it showed in their clear unwillingness to accept Coach Smith's instructions.

Fortunately, our new coach has no such baggage, at least not yet.  He will bring the full authority and respect that any new boss brings in the initial period after his hiring. That will make his job easier in the short run, but could make it harder if he fails to pull the team together.

But now, our remaining "'04"'s, our seniors, have a chance to put all this right.  Ramel must learn to lead, not just by being willing to take the shot or bang his chest, but to give up his body, his points, and his "Wow!"'s for the good of the team.  Crawford, on the other hand, must gather his fortitude and and become the last option as well as the first -- they guy who scores when we need it, and has the courage not just to take those shots, but make them.

So now, we have come full circle.  The two remaining "'04"'s are seniors, and will be supported by one of the most highly touted recruiting classes Kentucky has had since ... well, since the "04"'s themselves.   Can they find their way to a measure of the success enjoyed by their former peers at Florida, or will they ride off into the sunset of their college careers as cautionary tales?

Ironically, more so since our last foe was Kansas and our new coach apprenticed under Kansas' coach, the Kentucky Wildcats now find themselves trying to get back to Oz -- the shining Big Blue city full of pageantry and wonder where national championship banners are caught high on the breeze, and NCAA trophies adorn every wall.  That's where Kentucky fans want to be. Can our "'04"'s get us there?