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At the Nike All-America camp in Indianapolis last July, Wildcats sophomore guard Rajon Rondo, a counselor at the camp, sat in the bleachers one day having a casual chat with his coach, Tubby Smith. When talk turned to the upcoming season, Smith asked Rondo what the team needed to do to improve upon its Elite Eight finish last season. Specifically, Rondo says, Smith wanted to know, "'What do you want? What will fit your game?' I told him we should use our guards and speed up the tempo."
A frenzied pace suits Rondo. As a freshman he set a school record with 87 steals. On offense, though, he struggled with his shot from the perimeter and hit just 58.3% of his free throws. With two of the Wildcats' top three scorers-- Kelenna Azubuike (14.7 points a game) and Chuck Hayes (10.9)--now gone, Rondo knew he'd have to improve his shooting.
In June he stayed on campus and, with the help of associate head coach David Hobbs, overhauled his stroke. "We broke it down," says Rondo. "We looked at my release and focused on keeping my elbow in. I did a lot of repetition, 400 shots every day."
At the end of the summer Rondo got to test his skills with the U.S. team at the under-21 world championships in Argentina. He led all competitors in shooting (65.5%) and improved his free throw percentage (65.0%). Not surprisingly, his defense was stellar--he set a USA U21 record with 27 steals. Now he's ready to rejoin senior guard Patrick Sparks in what should be a potent backcourt.
The Wildcats' biggest concern is their best big man--6'10" sophomore center Randolph Morris, who declared for the NBA draft in June but wasn't picked. Kentucky applied to have his eligibility restored, but the NCAA investigated his ties to the sports agency SFX and hasn't yet cleared him to play. But with or without Morris, Kentucky will likely dominate the SEC again.
For Kentucky to have a shot at the national championship, though, Rondo has to make his shots and fill the leadership void left by Hayes's departure. If his summer is any indication, he's ready. Says Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who coached Rondo in Argentina, "He was really what you would want from a point guard. He was a coach on the floor, good at directing his teammates and interested in knowing what needed to be done to win."
Tubby Smith didn't have to go far to fill out his roster: Six current Wildcats are Bluegrass State natives, including his starting backcourt of Patrick Sparks and Rajon Rondo, as well as Jared Carter, Preston LeMaster, Ravi Moss and Brandon Stockton.