On one hand, this Wildcats team had overachieved for much of the season. I know that, at the beginning of the season, had someone told me that this team would finish 28-6 with a regular-season SEC Championship and an elite eight NCAA appearance, I would have discounted the notion as extremely wishful thinking. Though I knew that the talented freshmen joining the team would add tremendous value, the team had really lost a great deal when Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels, Antwain Barbour and Gerald Fitch had departed.
But on the other hand, this young team had shown flashes of brilliance all season long. My expectations rose steadily during the season as the freshmen developed before my eyes. Kentucky's bench matured and produced and the leadership of Chuck Hayes, Patrick Sparks and Kelenna Azubuike strengthened.
And why wouldn't expectations grow? Rajon Rondo developed as fast as any freshman in recent memory. Slashing the lane, dishing the ball, finishing a break, and of course, picking pockets, Rajon steadily worked his way into the hearts of Kentucky fans. In tight circles the Wildcat faithful have already begun to whisper things like, "Rondo may become the best point guard ever at UK."
Outside of what we knew about the play of veterans Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike, other players showed that this was a solid (and deep) team top to bottom. Patrick Sparks provided long-range punch to the offense. Ramel Bradley's spark off the bench, speed, and fiery attitude had developed into a real shot in the arm off the bench. Joe Crawford began to play hard and tough and show us glimpses of what we were hoping to see out of the gate. Randolph Morris began to become a scoring threat and an intimidating presence in the paint. Ravi Moss became the team's steadiest long-range shooter and all around team leader. Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas played solid minutes in relief of Hayes. And Kentucky's big men, Lucasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne had their moments, particularly later in the season. The Cats would have never made it past Utah in the sweet sixteen without them.
In the end however, it was the impact of Kentucky's youth and inexperience that sent them home to watch the final four on television. Despite their ability to put it all together for a string of incredible victories, it was inconsistent play and suspect decision making that made it inevitable that the Cats would stumble.
For every hard fought comeback, it seemed, there was a sloppy victory against a mediocre team. To offset solid performances against strong teams there were lethargic efforts, such as the Florida SEC Championship game or the second game against South Carolina.
Patrick Sparks was a player that made you hold your breath when he shot. When he was on, he was deadly, and he was highly responsible for many Kentucky victories this season. He worried opposing coaches as much as any single player on the team with his ability to fill it up from the outside. But when he was off, he was often really off. Teams could often focus on Patrick and take him completely out of his game, and there were times when his shot selection or decision-making cost the team at critical times.
The freshmen, brilliant at times and mature beyond their years, frequently showed their youth and inexperience with bad passing, poor shot selection, or other mistakes linked directly to inexperience. Kentucky's big men, beyond Hayes, would frequently allow smaller players to dominate them on the glass. And the team in general was woefully inconsistent from the outside.
Regardless, when the team walked off the floor for the last time on Sunday, I held a tremendous sense of hope for the future. Morris improved over the final seven games more than anyone on the team. He may very well be one of the SEC's top centers next year. Rondo, with another year under his belt, will be competing for SEC Player of the Year honors. Seniors-to-be Azubuike and Sparks will be poised to have their best seasons in a Wildcat uniform. Azubuike should be among the SEC's leading scorers next season, perhaps Sparks as well. Bradley and Crawford will be pushing for playing time.
The one critical question that Tubby will have to answer over the summer will surround a replacement for Hayes. If the Cats fill the rebounding and leadership void Hayes leaves behind, next year's team will not only be better, it will be significantly better. That is a huge question, however. The team does not want for candidates. Morris showed tremendous improvement in the latter stages of the season but whether he can step up with eight to nine rebounds per game is questionable. Thomas has the summer to rebuild some of the strength and endurance he lost this season after major surgery. Certainly Obrzut and Alleyne have room to improve. It is possible, of course, that Hayes' rebounding and lost post offense may be replaced by committee, and with UK's experienced bench returning, we may see just that.
Another option would be to bring in someone new. Kentucky has a scholarship to give and there are strong rebounding recruits available. Among them is Mohammed Kone a junior college power forward.
Regardless what the summer holds, it should be obvious to Cats fans that the cupboard is anything but bare. While replacing Chuck Hayes will be no small chore, Tubby does not face the prospect of replacing Fitch, Daniels, Barber and Hawkins as he did this season.