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Dreaming Big Part I -- Returning Kentucky To The Top

That time of the summer has arrived where news about the Kentucky basketball program gets sparse, and that leads me to begin thinking about the things the UK basketball team must do to improve on last year's effort and return the Wildcats to their customary place at the top of the SEC and making deep runs at the national championship.

For the last three years, Kentucky fans have been treated to a series of disappointing seasons including also-ran positions in the SEC and early dismissals from the NCAA tournament.  Despite the remarkable turnaround last year and some promising possibilities, 2007-08 will go down as at best a transitional year in Kentucky basketball history.  Despite a strong second place showing in the SEC East and throwing a bit of a scare into the first place Volunteers in Knoxville, Kentucky really never made itself a threat to win the SEC East, and despite making the tournament under difficult circumstances, suffered its earliest exit in March in recent memory.

But the modest success Kentucky enjoyed last year contained some very promising signs for the Big Blue Nation.  The 'Cats showed steady improvement from both the team, individual and coaching standpoints throughout the year, and despite a disastrous non-conference schedule, really began to show toward year end the possibility of a return to their customary place atop the SEC, and to the elite of college basketball.  For starers, I'll briefly look at each returning UK scholarship player and what they need to do to make next year more successful than last.  First, we'll take a look at our returning 4-5 players, starters first, following with the rest in subsequent posts.

Patrick Patterson -- Patrick Patterson came here as the first truly elite power forward at UK for some time.  He was expected to do well under Coach Gillispie's new system, and he didn't just live up to that expectation, he wildly exceeded it.  Prior to his unfortunate injury late in the year, Patterson became one of the most feared and dominant inside players in the SEC.  His incredible strength, relentless work ethic and determination set a new standard for both the Wildcats and the league.  Despite missing the last 3 regular-season SEC games, Patterson wound up 3rd in the league in minutes played, 9th in scoring and 7th in rebounding.  Patterson's return next year is pivotal to Kentucky's chances to return to the top of the SEC.

It would seem that returning to the court is all Patterson really need do next year, but he also needs to improve in a few areas:

  1. Finish stronger at the rim -- Despite Patterson's imposing strength, physique and athleticism, he has a high-school tendency to finish soft at the rim, often trying to lay the ball in rather than dunk it.  We often see this in freshmen big guys, and it is always correctable.  Patterson cannot intimidate anyone with a layup, he needs to ram it home with authority every time the opportunity presents itself.  Intimidate, dominate, humiliate -- these are the watchwords for Patrick's game in 2008-09.  He needs to take that mindset into every game.

  2. Decrease turnovers -- Patterson touches the ball a lot, and last year he made too many turnovers for a man of his passing skill.  Patrick is simply an outstanding passer from the post, but he needs to show more discipline and be stronger with the ball.  He has a tendency, like most freshmen, to commit too early to either a pass or a shot.  Pat should be a threat at all times when he touches the ball, and that's the mentality he needs to take.

  3. Foul less -- Patrick was generally very good avoiding fouls, particularly later in the season and considering minutes played.  Still, he lead the team in fouls per game at almost 3, and was disqualified four times.  He can do better.

  4. Tendency to occasionally disappear -- an eventual first-round man-child like Patterson must never disappear like he did in several games last year.  Never.  He must always have an impact, and if he is having trouble scoring, he must fight harder for rebounds and assists.

Perry Stevenson -- After starting like gangbusters in 2006-07, Stevenson vanished from sight and was an afterthought coming into last year.  Early in the year, he continued to earn few minutes and little attention, but in the first Vanderbilt game at Rupp Arena, he announced his presence to the SEC with 5 huge steals and, despite not scoring a point, a gem of a defensive effort.  Perry continued to improve in every facet of the game, culminating in an 18 point/10 rebound/5 block late-season effort against Florida in a critical matchup.

What does Stevenson need to improve on?  Several things:

  1. Outside shooting -- Stevenson needs to become more of a threat away from the basket.  He developed into an excellent free-throw shooter as the season wore on and his shot mechanics are very sound, so there is no reason why he cannot consistently hit the 15-18 foot jumper.  Matt Jones has a post today that gives us some hope in this area.

  2. Consistency -- Perry, like most young players rounding into form, suffers from consistency problems.  One game, Perry would deliver impressive numbers, and the next he would vanish.

  3. Strength -- Stevenson is never going to be as heavy as most power forwards in the league, so he must make up for that lack of bulk with upper-body strength.  Stevenson is already as athletic as anyone, but he has to become much stronger with the basketball and more of a rebounding threat in a crowd.

  4. Run the floor better -- Stevenson has a long way to go in this area, and it's hard to see why.  He has excellent athleticism and decent quickness -- he should be running the floor much better than he has so far.

A.J. Stewart -- In my opinion, A.J. aught to be playing the 3, but last year we found him almost exclusively at the big forward spot, so we'll put him in here.  In 2007-08, A.J. showed why he was recruited to Kentucky -- impressive athleticism, incredible enthusiasm for the game and an all around energizing presence.  A.J. has remarkable athleticism and although he is still quite raw, shows the potential to be an impact player in a supporting role in 2008-09.

Stewart needs to improve most in the following areas:

  1. Understanding defense -- A.J. has the ability to be one of the best defenders on the team -- a 6'8" guy with the quickness of a 3 and the strength and length of a 4.  A.J. should be able to stop virtually anyone, but last year he often found himself guarding no one.  That won't work with Gillispie.

  2. Ballhandling -- A.J. is a natural 3, in my opinion, and needs to find a way to compete for time at that spot.  To do so, he will need to improve his handle quite a bit, learn how to slash to the basket and shoot the ball on the move.

  3. Attack the basket on both ends of the floor -- A.J. is so athletic, he can do things other players just can't.  He needs to use that to his advantage and attack the rim on both ends, for both rebounds and baskets.

  4. Confidence -- Stewart lacked confidence in the overall team concept last year.  He must learn to trust his teammates, and himself.

Jared Carter --  In 3 years at Kentucky, Jared Carter has had almost no impact on the Kentucky team.  Despite showing promise very early in his first season, repeated injuries and a lack of development have plagued Jared's efforts to date.  He returns in 2008-09 for his senior season, and although UK could petition the NCAA for another year for Jared, it seems unlikely that they will do so unless we see a radical improvement from him.

The areas for improvement for Carter are too numerous to list, so I will just point out a few big ones:

  1. Confidence -- Jared must develop confidence in both his body and his game.  Repeated shoulder injuries have rendered him tentative and careful on the floor, and in college basketball, those are the kiss of death.

  2. Upper body strength -- Carter is simply too weak in his chest and shoulders to be effective in the post in the SEC.

  3. Footwork  -- Jared has exhibited very poor footwork in the post, and has few go-to offensive moves that he will try.  He doesn't use a drop-step and he has not shown us a hook or a turn-around.  He must find some move that he can use to reliably make himself a threat.

  4. Play 7'1", not 6'8" -- Carter plays ridiculously short for a man his size.  He has good lower-body strength which he fails to use to obtain good position near the basket, and he doesn't take the ball strong to the hole.

  5. Learn to play position defense -- Carter will never be the quickest player on the court, so he needs to learn to establish himself in solid position on defense.  He also needs to learn to provide weak-side help, and learning good floor position will go a long way to solving both problems.

Tomorrow, we will look at our returning players at the 2 and 3 spot.