Key Losses: G/F Kelenna Azubuike (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Chuck Hayes (10.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Postseason: NCAA: Defeated Eastern Kentucky 72–64, defeated Cincinnati 69–60, defeated Utah 62–52, lost to Michigan State 94–88 (2 OT) in the regional finals
Georgetown, KY/Scott County
Vallejo, CA/Salt Lake (UT) CC
St. Albans, WV/IMG (FL) Academy
After landing the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2004, Kentucky had more modest success in 2005. Sims can play both forward positions and figures to give the Wildcats an all-around player who can score, pass and rebound. The other two signees are not expected to contribute right away. Carter, who went to high school about 30 minutes from Kentucky’s campus, gives the team a third 7-footer. Williams committed to Kentucky three years ago and finally has arrived after graduating from high school and spending a year at the IMG Academy.
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What was supposed to be a talent-rich and experienced team now looks like a shell of its former self. Gone are at least two of the team's top four scorers from a season ago.
The Wildcats knew they were going to lose senior Chuck Hayes, the team's top rebounder the last three seasons, but defections by leading scorer Kelenna Azubuike and center Randolph Morris (neither was drafted) changed the team's complexion entirely. Morris, however, has applied for reinstatement and could be back.
While coach Tubby Smith seems to have adopted the mantra "We'll be all right," a Kentucky team that was thought to be a national championship contender now enters the season full of question marks. Can the two-headed center of Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut give the Cats meaningful minutes? Will Joe Crawford begin to fulfill his promise by stepping into Azubuike's old role as one of the team's top scorers? Who will play power forward?
One of the Cats' strengths from a season ago now appears to be one of their weaknesses. Azubuike, Hayes and Morris were UK's top three rebounders, and perhaps most worrisome for Kentucky, it doesn't have definitive replacements waiting in the wings.
Finding a center figures to be Smith's top priority. Morris started nearly every game last season but was not the force most expected. His intensity and work ethic have been challenged. Alleyne and Obrzut have shown snapshots of their potential in two years of spot duty, but they've also shown flashes of their shortcomings as well.
At 7-3 with an immense wingspan, Alleyne provides is a defensive presence. He blocked a team-high 44 shots last season in limited minutes, but still struggles with the speed of the game. Obrzut, another 7-footer, is the much better athlete, but after playing in Europe his first 18 years, the native of Poland still hasn't grasped the back-to-the-basket game that Smith demands.
The competition at power forward figures to include junior Sheray Thomas and junior college transfer Rekalin Sims. Thomas recovered from surgery to remove a benign tumor from his abdomen last season to play well in spurts, but his body never regained the 30 pounds he lost during his recuperation. Sims is more of a small forward who might be pressed into duty inside.
While Kentucky's inside players might struggle, its array of guards could be the best in the country. Rondo earned the starting job as a freshman last season. As a sophomore he'll be asked to continue providing the Cats with his trademark defensive pressure while carrying more of the load offensively. If he comes back this season with a more reliable jump shot, Rondo could be an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
At the off-guard spot will be Patrick Sparks, the team's second-leading scorer last season. Sparks evolved into the player who took the big shot, beating Louisville with three free-throws in the final seconds and hitting an improbable 3-point shot at the buzzer in the NCAA regional final against Michigan State to force overtime.
Crawford will be Kentucky's most intriguing player to watch because he played so seldom last season, but has perhaps more potential than any other Kentucky player. The former McDonald's All-American left the team for a week last season before deciding against a transfer and returning to the Cats. He averaged just 11.2 minutes and 3.2 points, but he could turn into the Cats' most important player this season because of his scoring ability.
Kentucky also will rely on Ramel Bradley and Ravi Moss off the bench.
Smith has enjoyed veteran teams for most of his tenure at Kentucky, so he might be facing more unknowns this season than ever before.
Still, the Cats have an explosive backcourt, and their signature defense remains a staple of Smith's teams, no matter who's on the court. A down year in the talent-drained SEC means that Kentucky again is the team to beat, and that's good for the trophy case, but a terminally restless fan base gauges success on national championships, not league titles.