JONES: UK has several options to replace Azubuike

The replacement for Azubuike may not be found in the Number 1 ranked Freshman recruiting class, but could rather come from the much more maligned and virtually unrated, Sophomore class.

When Kentucky junior Kelenna Azubuike made clear this week that his decision to enter the NBA Draft was a permanent one, most Kentucky fans immediately turned their collective attention to his most likely successor, Sophomore Joe Crawford. Crawford's saga at Kentucky has been a varied one and his decision to leave and then return to the University was fodder for much public debate during the season. However no one who saw Crawford play in high school has ever denied that he has legitimate star potential. Thus many, including this writer, have suggested that Kentucky likely will not miss a beat with the Azubuike departure, and the most optimistic of these have even hinted that they could be better off with a younger, more aggressive small forward.

However what this admittedly optimistic viewpoint may not be considering is that the replacement for Azubuike may not be found in the Number 1 ranked Freshman recruiting class, but could rather come from the much more maligned and virtually unrated, Sophomore class. At this time two years ago, many Kentucky fans were wondering why the beloved Big Blue was entrusting its future in a skinny kid from Durham, North Carolina that had barely garnered any interest from the powerhouses on Tobacco Road and an unknown "power" forward from Canada whose recruiting ranking was even lower than the unknown Canadian from the previous season, Bernard Cote. Little was expected of Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas and whenever their recruiting class was mentioned (when it was mentioned at all), it was to comment on the novelty of the first set of twin seven-footers in the school's history.

However, once again, the world underestimated the foresight of Coach Tubby Smith. Continuing in the mold of Gerald Fitch and Eric Daniels, both unknown players who excelled in the Kentucky system, this unheralded twosome have found their place in the Kentucky rotation, and more importantly, have garnered the confidence of Coach Smith.

Thomas was the first of the two to find success, adding an important physical presence during his Freshman year on a Kentucky team that did not go very deep. By the end of the season. Thomas was a crucial part of the rotation, and was used extensively by the coaching staff whenever the Cats went up against a physical or overly tall opponent. Going into this season, he looked to be the team's sixth man before an emergency off-season surgery caused him to miss half the season and lose a significant amount of the muscle that made him so effective. Thomas never seemed to regain his freshman form during the season, but as the team moved on its post-season run, he saw his playing time and confidence increase.

Bobby Perry on the other hand was used only sparingly as a freshman, but used his sophomore season to solidify his place on the Kentucky team. Beginning the season in the Maytag Repairman-esque role of being the backup to Chuck Hayes, Perry slowly found other ways to put himself into the lineup playing both forward positions, and even once finding himself at the center position. Perry showcased himself to be a classic Tubby Smith player, succeeding on hard work, desire and knowledge of the game. Smith showed his faith in Perry by often having him in the game in the most crucial situations, and Perry found himself a key factor in the season-ending loss to Michigan State. Perry occasionally showcased a solid outside jumper and his promise at the end of the season to add ten pounds of muscle before next year, makes his future even brighter. Even before Azubuike decided to enter the NBA Draft, it was likely the case that one of these two young men would find himself in the starting lineup next year. While Kentucky has made the recruitment of a power forward an off-season priority, it is not Tubby Smith's style to start a freshman at a position where he has solid, upper-class experience on hand. A member of the coaching staff indicated at the end of the season that it was likely that Bobby Perry would go into the off-season as the starter at power forward, but it would not have been a shock for a re-energized Sheray Thomas to surpass him.

However the opening left by the Azubuike departure may change things. In fact, it could very well be the case that both of these young men could find themselves in the starting lineup. While the obvious answer to the small forward hole left by Azubuike's departure is Joe Crawford, Coach Tubby Smith has in the past often chosen the path less traveled in his decisions. Moving Bobby Perry to the small forward position and allowing Sheray Thomas to start at power forward, may not be the most offensively explosive lineup, but it would have two elements that are important to Smith, an emphasis on defense and toughness. If I were a betting man, I suspect the starting five next season will be Rajon Rondo, Patrick Sparks, Joe Crawford, Bobby Perry and Randolph Morris. But do not be shocked if both Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas hear their names announced next year in the opening game lineup. They are prototypical Tubby Smith players and thus may be his initial answer to the Kelenna Azubuike departure.

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