Editor's Note: This is the first in a series previewing the 2004-05 Southeastern Conference men's basketball season.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Few teams in the Southeastern Conference lost more from their 2003-2004 rosters than Kentucky.
But none has reloaded as effectively as the Wildcats.
After losing more than 45 points and 13 rebounds per game from departed starters Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins and Erik Daniels, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith signed what many considered the best recruiting class in the nation.
Smith hooked up three McDonald's All-Americans -- his first since Keith Bogans in 1999 -- with guards Joe Crawford (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and Rajon Rondo (6-1, 175) and center Randolph Morris (6-11, 250) along with another touted prep star in Ramel Bradley (6-2, 190).
Kentucky also will gain the services of Western Kentucky transfer guard Patrick Sparks, who sat out last season under NCAA rules.
Bradley, Rondo, Crawford and Morris all averaged 21 or more points as prep seniors. Rondo averaged 12 assists per game and Morris averaged 16 rebounds.
Sparks averaged 13.6 points and 5.9 assists per game in his sophomore season at Western Kentucky.
Sparks, Crawford, Rondo and Bradley will be called on to carry the load in the backcourt after losing Hawkins and Fitch.
While there is plenty of scoring slack for the freshmen to pick up, Smith expects leadership to come from returning starters Chuck Hayes (6-6, 247) and Kelenna Azubuike (6-5, 208). The pair combined to average 21.8 points and 13.1 rebounds last year.
"I think our freshmen and underclassmen see an opportunity," Smith said. "It's a matter of can they seize that opportunity? Can they meet the requirements of filling those gaps?"
Smith said veterans like senior Josh Carrier, junior Brandon Stockton and sophomore Bobby Perry have all improved and will give Kentucky the kind of depth it hasn't had for a few seasons.
The Wildcats' starting five all averaged 28 or more minutes per game last season and top reserve Antwain Barbour, also gone to graduation, averaged 17. No one else averaged more than 8 minutes per game.
Kentucky was 27-5 last year and won its 25th SEC Tournament to earn a No. 1 seed for the second straight year, but took the most shocking loss of the NCAA Tournament when Alabama-Birmingham knocked the Wildcats out with a last-second shot, 76-75.
UAB, coached by former Arkansas assistant Mike Anderson and employing the same 40 minutes of Hell philosophy as his mentor, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, wore down Kentucky and its short bench.
That weakness could turn into a strength this season, Smith said.
"When we look at last year's experience, we had a big drop-off sometimes when we had to go to our bench," Smith said.
"We'll have a deeper rotation than we've had in a while. We called on our seniors to carry a big load last year and play a lot of minutes. Other than Chuck and Kelenna, I don't see that many guys logging that many minutes."
Even with so many highly regarded newcomers joining his team, Smith isn't worried about distributing minutes or developing their roles.
This class was sold on Kentucky's team-first attitude and Smith said that atmosphere is already evident through the first two weeks of practice.
"Are they as good as advertised? It's a wait-and-see type thing," Smith said. "But our system perpetuates that teamwork. Guys that were part of it the last two years, seeing how the whole is greater than the parts, is helping the freshmen.
"They came here to be a part of that."
The first part Smith emphasizes is defense, and from that respect the Wildcats could be even better this year with Morris and two returning 7-footers in sophomores Shagari Alleyne (7-3, 258) and Lukasz Obrzut (7-1, 257).
Kentucky being even better on defense could be a scary thought for the rest of the SEC after the Wildcats ranked second in the conference in both field-goal percentage and scoring defense.
"I think we should be a better shot-blocking team," Smith said. "I think we're bigger. Our starting lineup should be taller, but that may not be the case.
"We can be a better defensive team, but I don't know when because we had so much experience at those (guard) positions. But I've gotten indications from our freshmen that they are very willing to play defense and compete at the defensive end. That's the No. 1 hurdle."
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