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August 25, 2008

Monday Tip: Is Kentucky ready to contend?

With news last week that junior college transfer Kevin Galloway has obtained his eligibility and rumors that freshman DeAndre Liggins probably will as well, that noise you heard was a collective sigh of relief from Big Blue Nation.

Admittedly thin in the backcourt without the newcomers, Kentucky now has more reason for optimism regarding the upcoming season. Galloway and Liggins are similar types, 6-foot-6 point guards who are top-notch distributors and long and athletic playmakers.

Kentucky lost some key players from last season's NCAA Tournament team. Shooting guard Joe Crawford (17.9 ppg) was the Wildcats' leading scorer, and point guard Ramel Bradley added 15.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists. UK also was depleted by several transfers.

Still, you never should count Kentucky out of the SEC race. Or should you? We asked basketball editor Bob McClellan and staff writer Andrew Skwara if Kentucky is a legitimate contender to win the SEC. Here is what each said.

MCCLELLAN'S PICK: YES

There's no question Billy Gillispie's roster has some holes after all of the departures. So what? So does every other SEC roster. SEC favorite Tennessee has the same questions at point guard that it has had for the past couple of seasons. Florida isn't without its problems, either; otherwise, it wouldn't have been in the NIT last season. Vanderbilt, a thorn for UK the past few seasons, lost Wildcat killer (no shame, he did it to everybody) Shan Foster and two other starters.

The Wildcats remain dangerous. They nearly knocked off the Vols last season in Knoxville, and that was without forward Patrick Patterson, who had just suffered the stress fracture in his left ankle that sidelined him for the rest of the season. He's the biggest key to UK this season. He was SEC Co-Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. Simply put, no one in the league could handle him, and there's no reason not to expect more of the same.

Shooting guard Jodie Meeks is another player coming back from injury who must be 100 percent to make the Wildcats go. Terrific as a freshman, various hip injuries forced him to miss 20 games and be limited in the 11 in which he did participate last season. He will be UK's de facto best outside shooter, and perimeter shooting is a huge question for this team. No returning player made more than 16 3-pointers last season, so unless someone steps up, Patterson will face lots of sagging defenses and double-teams.

Yes, some new faces will have to play big roles for the 'Cats to be a legit threat to win the league. But that's what new faces do these days. Liggins was offered by Kansas and Memphis, the team that played for the national title, before choosing Kentucky. That should tell you he's a big-time prospect. Small forward Darius Miller is another four-star prospect who can step in and start from Day One.

How about this lineup if everyone is injury-free: Liggins at the point, Meeks at shooting guard, Miller at small forward and Patterson and Perry Stevenson up front. Young? You bet. Inexperienced? Definitely. Scary by the time the SEC season rolls around? I say yes.

SKWARA'S PICK: NO

Kentucky is one of those teams you look at and say, well if this happens and if this happens and if this happens, they will be good.

More often than not, teams with that many questions end up being average.

Here are just a few of the obstacles for Big Blue:

Starting a true freshman or a junior college transfer at point guard. Liggins and Galloway have impressive physical tools, but is either really ready to run the show?

Lack of backcourt depth. The Wildcats have only four scholarship guards on the roster. Two are newcomers (Liggins and Galloway), and another (junior Michael Porter) averaged 1.5 points last season.

Finding enough offense. The Wildcats are losing two of their top three scorers (Crawford and Bradley combined to average 33.8 ppg) from a team that ranked next-to-last in scoring in the SEC at 68.5 ppg.

Even if Kentucky overcomes all that, I don't see how they finish any higher than second in the SEC East. Tennessee has more depth, more firepower, more experience and, most important, fewer question marks.

VOTE: Is Kentucky ready to contend in the SEC?

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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