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October 27, 2008

Preseason story line No. 15: New-look 'Cats

MORE: Top 65 Countdown: No. 40 Kentucky

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 15, we examine a new look for Kentucky.

The winningest program in college basketball has plenty to worry about this season.

Kentucky has lost two of its top three leading scorers from a team that struggled to score last season. Guards Joe Crawford (17.9 ppg) and Ramel Bradley (15.9 ppg) combined to average 49 percent of the Wildcats' 68.5 points per game, which ranked next-to-last in the 12-team SEC.

"Those two guys gave us so much," said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who enters his second season in Lexington. "Last year when we were in so many close games in the last three minutes those guys made plays every single time. A lot of times they made plays out of nothing. We're going to need someone else to step up and make those plays."

The Wildcats will also be without guard Derrick Jasper (4.2 ppg), who transferred to UNLV, further cutting into the backcourt depth. Junior Jodie Meeks (8.8 ppg) is the only returning guard who averaged more than two points per game last season.

Take Bradley, Crawford and Jasper away from a team that barely earned a spot in the 2008 NCAA tournament after a 7-9 start Kentucky won 11 of its next 13 games and captured a No. 11 seed and the new-look Wildcats are considered a borderline NCAA tournament team this season. For the first time in many years the school that used to dominate the SEC is outside of most top 25 preseason polls the Wildcats are No. 40 in the Rivals.com preseason Top 65.

But there are also plenty of reasons for hope among Kentucky fans. The biggest is the fact that the team is finally healthy, which could rarely be said at any point last season.

Sophomore power forward Patrick Patterson returns from a stress fracture in his left ankle that kept him out of the final five games last season. With some slight improvement, Patterson could be one of the nation's elite big men. Patterson, who had offseason surgery, was averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds when he went down - numbers that earned him co-SEC Freshman of the Year honors along with Florida guard Nick Calathes.

"I think that my role will change from last year to this year's team," Patterson said. "We had Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley that we could count on in clutch situations last year. Now with them gone I will have to step up as a leader. I know that I will have to be a bigger post presence and establish myself more this year."

Meeks missed 20 of 31 games due to myriad injuries, including a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. Meeks appeared to have recovered at a scrimmage during Kentucky's midnight madness festivities earlier this month, knocking down a handful of jump shots and a pair of 3-pointers from behind the new line at 20 feet, 9 inches. That was a great sign, because the Wildcats desperately need Meeks' offense and outside shooting with the loss of so much perimeter firepower. Meeks may need to average around 15 points per game for the Wildcats to keep their streak of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances going.

"Jodie has taken his game to a whole new level both physically and mentally," Gillispie said. "He has become a strong leader for our team. Him and Patterson are both ready to lead our team and to have a fantastic season."

The Wildcats have also upgraded their overall athleticism and talent level thanks to some solid recruiting. Their four-man class consists of a pair of top-50 prospects, guard DeAndre Liggins and swingman Darius Miller, and a pair of highly coveted junior college transfers, guard Kevin Galloway and power forward Josh Harrellson.

Liggins and Galloway both stand 6 feet 6 and are good leapers. They will battle for the starting point guard job perhaps the key position for the Wildcats along with junior Michael Porter, who averaged 15.4 minutes a game last season.

"We have a couple of guys who are long, so that can help us defensively to get deflections - which will create opportunities for us," Meeks said.

The fact that this will be Gillispie's second season in Lexington also stands as a sign of optimism, and perhaps a sign that the Wildcats are significantly underrated. In both of Gillipsie's previous two head coaching stops his teams have enjoyed breakthrough seasons in his second year. After winning just six games in his first season at UTEP, the Miners exploded for 26 wins in 2003-04 and snagged an NCAA tournament berth. That remarkable leap earned Gillispie the Texas A&M job, and two seasons later he guided Texas A&M to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 19 years. The season before Gillispie arrived at the Big 12 school the Aggies had gone 0-16 in conference play.

"I'd be very surprised if we didn't play better at the start of the season and didn't get better as the season goes along," Gillispie said. "That's what all our teams have always done. They have peaked at the right time."

If Kentucky continues to prove that trend, a lot of prognosticators will look foolish by season's end.

MORE: Top 65 Countdown: No. 40 Kentucky

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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