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The end of the beginning

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Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, the Kentucky Wildcats have returned from the wasteland of utter irrelevance, even "badness," to a state of semi-importance.  The Cats haven't abruptly become a juggernaut or anything, but, perhaps to their own surprise, people are actually discussing the still-somewhat remote possibility that this Kentucky team might yet find its way into post-season play.  Despite injuries, poor execution, confusion on offense and defense, periods with no apparent leadership and tempests of rumors in teapots, this Kentucky team has somehow beaten two ranked teams in its last four attempts, and very nearly come away with victories on the road at rising Mississippi State and Florida.  A mere two games ago, Kentucky was at 7-9 with the worst start since the 1920's and looking for all the world like it's season would collapse in on itself like a black hole at any time.  Now, the Cats have defeated top 5 Tennessee and held serve against a tough South Carolina team, and finally looks to have some actual momentum heading into a two-game road trip into the heart of Dixie.

There are many impressive things about this still-budding Wildcat resurgence, not the least of which is that they continue to have fairly severe injury problems.  Jasper, while playing well in major minutes, is showing but a shadow of the athleticism that had Wildcat fans so excited last year.  However, Jasper's injury has come with a silver lining -- in all that down time, D-Jas was apparently able to work very hard on his shooting stroke, which has improved so markedly that he is 8-14 on three point attempts, a remarkable 57% from the arc, and he hasn't been doing it with the Wayne Turneresque mechanics of last year,either.  The biggest problem now is that he is still a reluctant shooter because of his "get a better shot" instincts.

Jodie Meeks is also still among the walking wounded.  Jodie played a season-high 38 minutes against South Carolina, but it is obvious that both his conditioning and his lateral movement are significantly degraded due to his long bouts with hip-related injuries.  Still, Jodie climbed into double-figure scoring for the first time since the Florida International game, although he has yet to regain the three-point touch he displayed early in the season before the stress fracture in his hip.

Now Joe Crawford has again joined the ranks of the Play Through the Pain brigade with a nasty case of plantar fasciitis.  He was in street clothes for the South Carolina game and is now listed as day to day, although Matt Jones today intimated the possibility that he will not return until after this Saturday's game with Georgia in Athens.  After nearly a quarter-season of wondering whether or not Joe Crawford and Billy Gillispie would ever have a meeting of the minds, we now know that it has undoubtedly happened, and Crawford's burst of development has been nothing short of spectacular.  Crawford has suddenly reminded everyone in the Big Blue Nation why he was recruited over Chris Lofton.  It is unfortunate that such a nagging injury has sidelined his great play, but we can all hope it won't be for long.

So what has fueled this uprising?  That seems easy -- stellar play by Patrick Patterson, a sudden dramatic improvement by Perry Stevenson and the aforementioned Joe Crawford, and last but not least, Ramel "Smoov" Bradley.  Patterson has been spectacular all year, and pretty much consistent.  He is learning to deal with double-teams and zones, and that just takes time.  Perry Stevenson has been a revelation the last five games, and just continues to work harder and harder and get better and better.  In the past four games, Stevenson has averaged over 5 rebounds and in the last two has averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds.  If we could get that out of Perry every game on average, our chances of winning go way up.

But Bradley has come the farthest of any of them.  His newfound leadership and willingness desire to take the big shot have inspired his teammates.  Ramel is now taking the ball into the lane with regularity, getting fouled, and knocking down shots.  Bradley is now contributing over 21 points and over 5 rebounds to the cause, and that has offset his continuing ballhandling problems.  Bradley's confidence, already high at the worst of times, is now through the roof.  He is beginning to make enough noise to merit all-SEC consideration, a concept that a mere 5 games ago would have been so preposterous, no one would have suggested it.

The biggest negative that both Kentucky fans and the team face now is wondering how good this team could be if it were ever to reach full strength.  The Wildcats seem to be largely on the mend, but every time they get close to 100%, somebody else goes down with some kind of injury.  We haven't seen the best this team has to offer, because frankly, the best this team has to offer has never been on the floor, healthy.  If that can change over the next two weeks, there is no telling how high this team can rise -- even to the SEC championship. 

Finally, I think it's time to give props to Billy Gillispie.  Coach Gillispie has been as constant as the Northern Star telling the Big Blue Nation that the Cats are improving, and will get better.  I don't think anyone would argue with him now.  The team is more efficient on offense, much better on defense, and continues to step up their effort to higher and higher levels.  The last two ball games have shown the effect of the Coach's conditioning efforts, as players such as Bradley, Patterson and others log iron-man minutes game after game and still have plenty in the tank at the end.  Even Tennessee, who likes to play at a breakneck pace, looked much more fatigued at the end of their recent tilt with the Cats in Lexington than Kentucky did.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, although basketball season has been here for a while, it seems that the Wildcats have finally awakened from their fitful slumber and decided not to mail this season in after all.  From what I can tell, a lot of foes who were looking forward to getting a measure of revenge this year for the rough treatment they have suffered at the hands of Kentucky throughout history are now aware that the window of opportunity is closing, if it isn't closed already.