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Last February then Kentucky coach Tubby Smith had copies of a newspaper article about star Texas A&M guard Acie Law distributed to his players. Law�explained that he hadn't initially taken to his hyperintense coach, Billy Gillispie, but that over time, he had grown to appreciate how much Gillispie had helped him improve. Two months later Gillispie was hired to replace Smith, and 6' 2" senior guard Ramel Bradley immediately recalled that article. Unlike Law, however, Bradley would quickly embrace his new coach's passion. "I just love how intense he is," he says.
The admiration is mutual. "Ramel has been fantastic in every sense of the word--conditioning, talking, leading," Gillispie says. That bodes well for the Wildcats, who have gone nine years without a trip to the Final Four, which ties the longest drought in the program's 104-year history. Last year Bradley led Kentucky in assists and steals, and was third in scoring, but he was at times reluctant to assert himself. Now Bradley, who along with 6' 5" guard Joe Crawford is one of only two seniors on this team, spearheads a group of perimeter players who are so talented that Gillispie is considering occasionally deploying a four-guard offense.
As rich as Kentucky is in backcourt firepower, it is equally poor in frontcourt depth. The Wildcats' success will largely depend on how quickly freshman Patrick Patterson, a 6' 9" McDonald's All-American from Huntington (W.Va.) High, adjusts to the college game. With last year's leading scorer and rebounder, 6' 11" center Randolph Morris, in the NBA, Patterson is the team's lone imposing post presence.
Still, there are enough ingredients for Gillispie to whip up his customary short-order success. He is the only man who has led different schools ( UTEP in 2004 and Texas A&M in '05) to the nation's most improved record in consecutive years. Bradley can warn his new coach, though, that the Lone Star State isn't even close to the Bluegrass in hoops frenzy. "The expectations at Kentucky are the highest in the whole country," he says--and Wildcats supporters are simply salivating to see how well he and Gillispie can cook.
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RETURNING STARTER *HIGH SCHOOL STATS