The Kentucky Wildcats. Picked to finish FIRST in the Eastern Division of the SEC.
Kentucky shared first place in the Eastern Division last year on the strength of a 12-4 conference record. The Wildcats then won the SEC tournament by defeating South Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and took two games in the NCAA tournament, edging Holy Cross and trouncing Iowa before being eliminated by Southern California. A 24-10 season and two NCAA wins would please most fans, but those of Kentucky would have been only marginally satisfied if it didn't represent a big improvement on the 5-5 beginning to the season. The only player lost from last year's team was Saul Smith, the point guard and son of Coach Tubby Smith. Saul easily led the team in steals (51) and assists (130), and had an assist to turnover ratio of better than 2:1. He hit 34.5% of his three-pointers and scored 6.8 ppg. Four freshmen have been added and one man who did not play last year returns to the team. Whatever problems may face the Wildcats, depth should not be one of them.
Point guard is the biggest question mark on the team. Coach Smith has let it be known that 6'2" senior J.P. Blevins has first crack at the position. Blevins takes most of his shots from three-point range, where he hit only 29.1% in 2000-2001 while scoring 2.9 ppg. He will have a hard time holding off Cliff Hawkins, 6'1" sophomore (3.0 ppg) and Adam Chiles, 6'1" freshman from Ballard HS in Louisville. Hawkins is very quick and a good defender, but failed to display a good shooting touch last year; also he suffers from asthma, which may limit his playing time. Shooting guard is in the capable hands of a returning starter and second team All-SEC player, junior Keith Bogans (6'5"). Bogans initially announced for the NBA draft but withdrew before the deadline. He averaged 17.0 ppg, 4.7 rebounds, knocked down 36.1% of his three-pointers, led the team in scoring fifteen times, but has a tendency to turn the ball over a lot. He can move to the shooting forward position when necessary, opening up more time for 6'3" sophomore Gerald Fitch (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rebounds, 40.8% three-point shooting). Fitch was a surprisingly valuable substitute last year and led the team in rebounding in four games. It is unclear how much time this will leave for freshman guards Rashaad Carruth (6'3"), from Oak Hill Academy, and Josh Carrier (6'5"), from Bowling Green KY and son of former Western Kentucky star Darrell Carrier. Both Carruth and Carrier are good outside shooters, and if the Cats falter in this area (as they did in 1999-2000), one or both may be called upon to remedy the deficiency.
Starting wing forward Tayshaun Prince, 6'9" senior, seemingly has been around forever. Like Bogans, he entered the NBA draft, but withdrew before the deadline. A first-team all SEC choice, he was second in scoring for the Wildcats last year (16.9 ppg), and first in rebounding
(6.5 per game). His three-point shooting improved to 35.8% and he hit 84.3% of his numerous free-throws. Prince is difficult to defend because of his height. The starting power forward is expected to be Jules Camara, fleet-footed 6'11" junior, who had to set out last season after being caught driving under the influence. Camara scored 7.2 ppg and averaged 4.6 rebounds in 1999-2000. He is somewhat more slender than most power guards, but his height and activity should offset that problem. The reserves at forward are: Erik Daniels, 6'7" sophomore; Marquis Estill, 6'9" junior; and Chuck Hayes, 6'7" freshman. Estill averaged 7.3 ppg and had 3.8 rebounds per game last year, and is likely to see the most action. Daniels scored 5.3 ppg and was considered a surprise; he is the lightest of the three (195 lbs), and should be Prince's backup. Estill is in the strange position of having had his scholarship taken away even though he is not known to have committed a serious offense; this came about because Coach Smith signed up more freshman than he had available scholarships for after both Bogans and Prince withdrew from the NBA draft.
An All-SEC first team freshman last year, sophomore Jason Parker, 6'8", 250 lbs, was expected to start at this position after scoring 8.6 ppg and grabbing 4.7 rebounds. But he suffered an ACL tear in June and is expected to miss part or all of the 2001-2002 season. That allows the heretofore under-achieving Marvin Stone, 6'10" junior, to get his big chance. Stone averaged 6.0 ppg and 4.6 rebounds last year. He was a high school top-ten player and was expected to be a big star at Kentucky. He has plenty of weight (250 lbs) to throw around underneath and hit about 50% of his shots from the field, but only 58.4% of his free throws, last year. While Parker is out, Camara is likely to backup Stone, and replace him if he fails to produce.
Depth is the biggest strength. Coach Smith has proved to be flexible and able to come up with the winning combinations. The outside shooting was better than expected last year, and has been strengthened with the addition of Carruth and Carrier. The team will play tough defense and Prince and Bogans provide plenty of firepower.
Although there are three possibilities for point guard, none of them has much experience at running the team. Until Parker returns (if he does), the center situation will be unsettled.
Finding a point guard. If that problem is solved satisfactorily, the Wildcats will fulfill the prediction of finishing first in the East; if not, they are likely to find themselves edged aside by Florida.