A Pre-Season Perspective

As the 2003-2004 college basketball season approaches, it goes without saying that the pressure cooker known as Kentucky Wildcat basketball is certainly starting to heat up. One of the most storied if not the most storied program in all of college basketball, the desire to win displayed by Kentucky faithful is only rivaled, perhaps, by their counterparts at the University of North Carolina.

Last year's squad was one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in recent memory. It was a team with a definitive leader on the court and one also along the sideline. Coach Smith did a masterful job in getting last year's team to a man to buy into what he was selling as a coach. The ability on Coach Smith's part and the kid's willingness to submit to his master plan is something of a rarity these days in not only college basketball but athletics period. However, that was last year and this is a brand new year with some new and old faces to be found on the roster. Gone are Estill, Camara and the heart of last year's team Keith Bogans. But what is left is a wonderful nucleus of players who just like last year have the potential to make Cat fans go nuts and cheer all over again. There are, as I see it, some very definitive things that this coming year's team and players need to improve upon in order to find that level of success they are looking for.

I will first list out each returning player as is applicable and list what it is I think he needed to be working on this summer and pre-season in order to make Kentucky a better team this season. After that I will then offer up some larger tangible and intangible things that the team, as a whole needs to focus in my opinion, in order to have the kind of success that warrants wearing that jersey that says KENTUCKY across the chest.

Azubuike- A kid who at times showed some real flashes of talent, especially on the offensive end. Kelenna needs to really shore up his on the ball defense and along with hitting that weight room, which I am sure he did, he needs to be a force on the boards. He is too good of an athlete to not be a force on both the offensive and defensive glass. His offensive game would see a lot more effectiveness with an improvement on a pull up jump shot going either way off the dribble. This will give him the space and looks he wants from the three point area.

Barbour- Antwain is a kid who came in with a lot of hype out of JC but it was obvious from the get go that he lacked the physical strength for the SEC. He certainly has the skills necessary to be a scorer from the perimeter but he needs to improve both his lower and upper body strength. An improvement in the strength area for Antwain should also lead to an improvement on the defensive end as well. I would also like to see him improve his shot on the move. One of the things that made Keith so darn tough was his ability to come off picks or just be on the move catch the ball and with that two foot hop into his shot elevate and get the shot off. This something Antwain will have hopefully been working on in this off season.

Carrier- Josh is a kid who came to Kentucky with a big time reputation as a shooter and when he has gotten looks has often backed up that reputation. Here in lies the problem though, Josh rarely gets the kind of looks he needs. Josh certainly is a kid who needs to be living in the weight room, though that is not his biggest problem. Even with improved leg strength, until Josh learns to be down and ready to shoot the basketball at all times he will continue to have trouble getting his shot off. He has to understand that 50% of being a good shooter at the college level is being ready to shoot at all times. It is not about how high you get when you shoot but how quickly you can trigger your shooting motion. Along with the weight room and plyometeric workouts this summer, Josh needed to work on his ball handling and adding a very efficient one or two dribble pull up jump shot going to either hand. Josh's foot speed is something that will improve with strength and drills but he has to really work on concentrating on the defensive end in terms of his on the ball defense.

Cote- Both big and mean looking, always a nice combo, Bernard at times last year flashed some potential though it is still very raw potential. Footwork was certainly something that was glaringly week last year in Bernard's game. His role this year might be one of banger and board man. If he can provide a staunch defensive presence inside and continue to improve his footwork on the low block on the offensive end he may wall prove to be a very valuable player by the end of the year.

Daniels- Erik is a player who is on the verge of being a superstar on the college level with the right attention to detail this summer. Erik has to be more assertive this next year on the offensive end. He has a wonderful shooting eye but at times his shot would flatten out and he would not get the bend in the knees and the proper sit down on his shot thus creating more of a throw or aimed shot then simply a pure shot. Working on keeping that ball off his palm when he shoots the ball and keeping his shooting wrist cocked back a little better should give him better lift and arch on his shot. His shooting eye is very good and he should have range out to 19'9, but along with the things I listed above he is another one I would love to see work on and develop that one or two dribble pull up. At 6'9" there would be very few who could stop him.

Fitch- One of the toughest players in all of college basketball last year. When you look at Gerald you wonder how he does it sometimes. His shot is not the prettiest thing and he looks like he is about to lose it on the dribble at any time, but he simply has such a will to win in him that he finds a way to get it done. He is one of the great clutch shooters in all of college basketball and a very good defender. He needs to be prepared to assume the mantle of leadership that Keith Bogans held last year. I look for very big things from Gerald this up coming year. One of the things though that I would like to see him improve upon is shot selection. Last year at time, when he hit slumps, it was due more to his shot selection then anything else. It will be paramount to the success of this year's team that he learns when to shoot and when not to shoot.

Hawkins- Having Cliff all year long should greatly help this team in that they have two very capable ball handlers in Fitch and Hawkins and a third guy who can take some of that pressure of the guards in Daniels. One of things that has long plagued Cliff is his ability to get out of control in both the half and full court. Cliff is a guy who needs to really work on being aware of time, score and situation while running this Kentucky team. This year's team can not afford turnovers on break situations due to Cliff over-penetrating. I also think that this summer was a time when Cliff really needed to be honing his 15 to 17 foot jump shot as well as the pull up near and or around the foul line. These are shots other teams are going to let him have and he has to hit them.

Hayes- If I had to choose one player in the entire SEC, heck maybe the entire country to go to war with and have next to me in a foxhole, it would be Chuck. This is a coach's dream player. I think Chuck could still use work on his shot which really is just in need of better elbow lift on his shooting hand more then anything. Chuck does it all, guards post men, small guys and in between guys all the while sucking up every rebound he can get his hands on. Chuck will be asked to play a lot more on the interior this year, most likely, but this guy is in my mind the leader of this team along with Fitch. I would take ten of these kinds of players and take on all comers.

Stockton- Brandon saw minutes sporadically last year and at times showed some real grit and determination. I think he needs to work on using both hands in handling the ball along with developing that pull up jump shot. There is nothing more valuable to a team and a point guard then the pull up jump shot on the break.

I will not take a stab at commenting on the freshmen, though I have seen one of them play, simply because high school accolades and accomplishment mean nothing at the college level. I will say this about one of them though; Shagari Alleyne is a kid who I had the privilege of seeing play in his junior year at Rice at Christ the King. After the game I approached him and spoke to him after he had a pretty rough game. He was both very receptive to my comments and approach and was in general one of the nicest young kids I have met in some time. He will do Kentucky proud and I think with time and under the tutelage of Coach Smith and his staff will develop into a fine college basketball player.

Team Thoughts

Last years Kentucky team was built on two things: defense and toughness. Last year's team found ways to win at times when it seemed the situation was hopeless. When things were not being executed Coach Smith always regrouped the guys at halftimes especially and made some major some minor adjustments that usually always lead to a turn around in whatever aspect of the game the team was not executing.

Defensively last year's team was a great man to man team. In order for this year's team to duplicate that effort it is going to require even more off the ball help and rotation due to the lack of over-all size on the team. Short of either of the freshmen being ready to play immediately, Kentucky this year will need to utilize a number of different double down schemes with perimeter or offside players in order to defend the low post area against teams who have true aircraft carriers down low. I see no reason though that they should not be able to do this with this returning cast of players when you consider the high basketball IQ many of the displayed last year on the defensive end.

Offensively, however, Kentucky will have to perhaps take a little different approach. Last year Kentucky really did a very wonderful job of mixing up offensive looks. They ran everything from a continuity motion to flex to several different entry plays for specific players. I think this year's team will perhaps need to be even more of a full court, fast breaking team with its lack of size on the interior and with its proliferation of fine finishers on the break. I also think this year Kentucky will need to utilize more of the high and wide continuity motion then the tighter more physical flex offense. Flex is an offense that is successful by and large when you have more physical players. A high and wide continuity motion using all kinds of off the ball screens and cuts will play naturally to the strengths of this year's squad. The use of entry plays once again will be a very important factor in keeping the opponent off kilter defensive but also it will provide a chance to get certain players shots in certain places.

I am really looking forward to this college basketball season, as usual, and I think that Kentucky may not start out on every one's radar but by year end Coach Smith will have the Cats roaring.

Brett Ayers is originally from the Spokane, Washington area where after playing his high school ball he accepted a scholarship to come east and play at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. After graduating from Fordham with BA's in both History and Economics he accepted an assistant position at Steven's Tech in Hoboken, New Jersey where he assisted Coach Dr. Charles Brown for three consecutive years. Brett left coaching in 1998 to concentrate on his career in the world of finance in New York City. He continues to write about the game and get late night calls from his father who is a head boys basketball coach back home in Spokane at Mt. Spokane high school to go over some X's and O's. Brett can be contacted at bayers@firstbancorp.com

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