If the buzz surrounding the University of Kentucky's basketball version of Midnight Madness, called Big Blue Madness, is any indication of how good the actual squad will be, UK will making its way back to top of the polls.
Despite several consecutive seasons of disappointing NCAA tournaments, UK basketball fans will be coming out in droves for Big Blue Madness to see a team that should be improved from 2008.
Campus public safety has asked fans who want tickets to the Madness to line up no more than three days in advance. Over 23,000 people have packed Rupp Arena each of the last three years for Kentucky's first basketball practice.
The man leading the Wildcats in their first practice for the upcoming season, will be second year Head Coach Billy Gillispie.
Gillispie has a history of rapidly changing programs around, as he did at the University of Texas El Paso and Texas A&M. He'll try to work his magic in a weak Southeastern Conference and turn the program's 18 wins in 2008, to a 20+ win season in 2009.
He averages 13.5 wins in his first season at a new school, but 23 wins and an NCAA berth during his second year at a school.
There won't be a shortage of talent for Coach Gillispie to work with to make that hoped success, a reality. He retains a strong core of players and several stud freshmen to replace stars Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford.
Losing Bradley and Crawford, who combined for 34 points per game, isn't quite as devastating as it seems. Ken Pomeroy's statistics suggests Bradley and Crawford weren't the most productive offensive players on the floor. Their offensive ratings were actually pretty low for "star players."
Since both graced the hardwood in over 80% of the team's minutes, the low offensive ratings had a major impact on Kentucky's 81st best adjusted offensive efficiency rating. If you go back to 2004, the year Ken Pomeroy began keeping track of offensive efficiency, the lowest Kentucky ranks before 2008 is 25th.
In 2007, the Wildcats finished ninth—ninth to 81st is a pretty large drop in just one season.
Replacing Bradley and Crawford in the offense will primarily be Sophomore Forward Patrick Patterson and Junior Guard Jodie Meeks.
Patterson ranked above Bradley and Crawford in offensive efficiency as a freshman—natural progression suggests he should only get better in an offense that will operate through him in the low post.
Meeks on the other hand, struggled during an injury plagued sophomore season. He dealt with numerous injuries which limited him to just 11 games, but also affected the quality of his play.
Wildcats fans know what Meeks can do when healthy. In his freshman campaign, Meeks finished the season scoring in double-digits in eight straight games and also hit at least two three-pointers in seven of those eight games. His offensive rating topped both Bradley and Crawford in 2007.
Meeks became an immediate impact player, but lost his punch in 2008. A healthy Jodie Meeks means Kentucky will essentially be adding an all-conference caliber guard to an already good team.
The Big Blue offense has the potential to be much more than just Patterson and Meeks. The point guard position has an infinite amount of uncertainty entering the season, but that same position could quickly become one of the Wildcats' greatest assets.
JUCO transfer Kevin Galloway and freshman DeAndre Liggins are both described as slashers who like to pass. With a dominate big man in Patrick Patterson and a sharp shooter in Jodie Meeks, what more can you ask for from a new point guard?
Galloway has the early edge at the starting spot since he enters Lexington as a junior, but Liggins won't be too far behind as a four-star recruit.
Kentucky's inside-outside game will differ from the system Coach Gillispie used at Texas A&M. In that offense, Gillispie improved the Aggies' offensive efficiency ranking from 80th to sixth in his final two seasons there.
Coach Gillispie is also a defensive mastermind. In his three seasons at A&M, his squad ranked in the top ten nationally in defensive efficiency. He uses a tight man-to-man system which excelled in the Bluegrass State to a tune of 65.6 points per game—second best in the SEC.
Kentucky has the right players to turn in to another solid defensive squad. Patterson will team up with lanky block machine Perry Stevenson for a solid post presence.
On the wing, the Wildcats will use forward Ramon Harris, a role player in 2008. His starting spot could be in jeopardy because four-star recruit Darius Miller will be breathing down his neck.
Miller brings athleticism and rebounding to the team, but not necessarily scoring to a squad potentially filled with multiple scoring options.
Coach Gillispie has put together a solid team to face a solid non-conference schedule. The 'Cats will once again renew their annual rivalry with their cross-state foe Louisville, Ohio Valley nemesis Indiana University, and powerhouse North Carolina
UK will also travel to Las Vegas for a date with Kansas State and either West Virginia or Iowa. The Wildcats will also host 2008 NCAA Tournament team Miami in Lexington.
2008 Season Forecast
Things look good for the Big Blue to reel off 13 or 14 wins out of 17 in the non-conference schedule. A weak SEC means 11 wins also isn't out of the question, leaving the Wildcats at either 24-9 or 25-8 in the regular season. A seven seed should await them in March.