Last time in this series, we examined the seniors, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Joe and Ramel are going to lead the Wildcats in their return to relevance, but who will they be leading? We will begin looking at that today with last year's freshman class. Once again, we will go back in time a bit first, this time to March of 2006.
No one would have believed in the euphoria of 2004's monster recruiting class that coming out of 2005-2006, Kentucky would have added only one other recruit that lasted more than one season, and that player, Jarred Carter, would play a total of 100 minutes in two full seasons. By the time the 2005-06 season was over, the Big Blue Nation was deep in the funk of a season in Hell. Despite the heroics of Patrick Sparks and Bobby Perry against the talented Connecticut Huskies, Kentucky fans did not need Billy Packer and Dick Vitale to tell us our team badly needed help -- it was obvious to anyone with any interest in the college game.
When our 2006 recruiting class was finalized, Gregg Doyel famously ridiculed it in his column of St. Valentine's Day, 2006:
Next year's starting five probably would include Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford at guard, Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas at forward, and Randolph Morris (assuming he sticks around) at center.
Shhhh ... can you hear that? It sounds like Billy Donovan and Bruce Pearl giggling.
Perhaps Perry Stevenson, Jodie Meeks, Derrick Jasper and Michael Porter heard Doyel, Donovan and Pearl laughing -- because they came in an proved them wrong. Oh, Kentucky was still way below standard and the fans were unhappy with Smith, but they fell in love with the hardworking, blue-collar 2006 class.
I call the '06 guys "blue collar", but really that description only applies when compared with the 2004 class. Bradley, Rondo and Crawford, famously flashy and a bit overconfident, were well known for their ability to give the ball away with an ill-timed look-away pass, behind the back dribble, or failure to make eye contact with their receiver. By comparison, the 2006 class may have been "boring" to Doyel, but they were music to many UK fans' eyes, playing more fundamentally sound basketball and working very hard.
But hard work without talent still doesn't lead to wining, and fortunately, the 2006 class has lots of talent. Of course, like most sophomores née freshmen, they have weaknesses that need to be addressed.
Derrick Jasper burst upon the scene by earning a starting spot early in the year. He impressed with excellent passing and judgment, as well as good rebounding. Unfortunately, as teams became familiar with Derrick's game, they learned that he was a reluctant shooter at best from anywhere outside point-blank range. Defenses adjusted, and Derrick's unwillingness to shoot became a liability.
As the year wore on, Jasper became less and less effective, partially from what we now know are knee problems which have been surgically addressed in the off season. But also, Jasper's lack of confidence in his perimeter game bled over into the rest of his game, and he saw his playing time diminish.
Derrick showed tremendous leadership for a freshman, a fact remarked upon by Tubby Smith, and a large part of the reason he saw so many minutes early. This year, he must regain his confidence, both in his shooting touch and his ball handling. I don't expect him to become the vocal leader -- Ramel has that role -- but he must be the calming influence, the "ice that chills the drink."
Jodie Meeks was heralded as an athletic freak out of high school, and a fearless scorer. Both proved to be accurate, a rare thing these days. Unlike Jasper, Meeks gradually grew into playing time. In the first half of the season, Meeks averaged about 18 minutes a game. In the second half, almost 26 per game.
Perhaps the most startling thing about Meeks is his footspeed -- when he gets out on the break, there is probably no player in the entire NCAA who can catch him. Jodie is strong, smart, and has an even but competitive temperament, much like UK fan favorite Chuck Hayes.
This year, Jodie must become a reliable second or third option as a scorer. His ball handling and defense must improve, and he needs to get better at getting the ball to the basket. 46% of Jodie's made field goals last year were 3 point shots. A guard with his size and strength must do more inside the arc.
Perry Stevenson started the season with a bang -- banging the ball off opponent's heads, or off the high-priced patrons in and near the front rows. In his first 7 games, he blocked 16 shots in an average of 18 minutes per game. But his minutes dropped off precipitously after that - Stevenson only averaged 7.5 minutes per game in the remaining 27 games of the season.
Perry is athletic with a tremendous upside. He can run, jump, rebounds well for a player with such a slight build, block shots and score. He even has a decent face-up game out to about 12 feet. But Stevenson is very tentative with the ball in any kind of offense, and treats the basketball is if it were radiating 210 degree heat.
Perry must learn to minimally handle the ball, and develop the crab dribble that Brandan Wright used to such wonderful effect last year. The two are similar players, but Stevenson's talent is more raw. He must refine it this year, and about 25 lbs. on his frame would really help him hang in with the big SEC power forwards.
Finally, we come to Michael Porter. Michael was the least highly regarded of the 2006 class, and only saw spot duty last year. But he quickly became a fan favorite with his fearless, savvy play and his occasional deadeye shooting.
Porter must become a better ballhandler if he doesn't want to be sitting at the end of the bench for the rest of his career. He reminds me very much of J.P. Blevins, only he is further advanced at this point in his career than Blevins was. Porter has the kind of toughness and fearlessness that can get him minutes at Kentucky, but we don't need a point guard who gets his pocket picked every time he brings the ball up.
If Michael cannot develop an SEC quality handle, he will not thrive here. All the rest of his game is adequate, but a point guard without a handle is like a 400 meter runner with a prosthetic leg -- not exactly a recipe for success in the competitive SEC.
In summary, the 2006 recruiting class must develop into the body and bones of this team, and (at least in theory) Bradley and Crawford will be the head. But if the seniors do not deliver, the sophomores are the only ones who can effectively take over that responsibility.
On balance, though, Gregg Doyel got this one way wrong -- the 2006 class is anything but boring, it is talented and ready to help lead us to the Big Blue Road and the UK version of Oz.