Throughout Billy Gillispie's six years as a head coach at the Division One level, his second year at each new program has become the season for drastic improvement. In his first head coaching stint at the University of Texas-El Paso, Coach Billy Clyde's team finished its second season 24-8, an 18-win improvement over the first. (This does not include a victory over the Harlem Globetrotters that year in an exhibition game, breaking the Globetrotters streak of 289 consecutive wins.)
At Coach Gillispie's next stop, Texas A&M, his second season with the Aggies produced, despite low expectations after losing the best player from the previous year to the NBA Draft, the first NCAA Tournament bid for the school in nearly 20 years.
Now at his third head coaching job and one of the most high profile positions in all of college basketball, Gillispie faces high expectations (are there any other kind when talking about UK Basketball?) with a roster that lost two of its leading scorers, lost three other players to transfer, but returns the likes of All-American candidate Patrick Patterson and All-SEC candidate Jodie Meeks.
Here is a breakdown of the projected starters and other key players in Versioin 2.0 of Gillispie's Kentucky Wildcats:
PG: Michael Porter, the junior out of Modesto, CA, seems most likely to run the "one" at least in the early part of the year. A tremendous athlete, Porter must display better ball protection and become a steady threat to hit the three-pointer to keep this spot in the rotation. If not....
PG: DeAndre Liggins, a top recruit in the 2008 class, will be waiting to pick up the ball and run with it. And, boy, will he run. Known more for his passing and defense, DeAndre could be Billy's UK version of Acie Law at Texas A&M.
SG: Jodie Meeks. Called the "next Dwayne Wade" by a leading authority. Yeah, ok, so it was my father-in-law, but I like the way he's thinking. After a miserable sophomore season in which Meeks missed about half of the games due to injury, the Georgia native looks primed and ready to explode averaging 25pts in UK's two exhibition games this year.
Already a pre-season All-SEC selection, the potential is there to become a national star by the end of the year. Jodie is key to the success of this year's Wildcats.
SF: Ramon Harris. Expected to be the leader on the court, the "Razor" also needs to step up and become the third scoring threat needed to keep defenses from keying on Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Capable of getting to the basket, Harris is also the best defensive player on the roster and will be responsible for locking up the other team's No. 1 threat.
SF: Darius Miller. Mr. Basketball in Kentucky for 2008, this freshman will be counted on to play considerable minutes. Not the flashiest player, but one that knows how to win (His Mason County team won the Sweet Sixteen last season in Rupp Arena). He will be a solid contributor and should emerge as a valuable weapon by mid-season.
PF: Patrick Patterson. The sophomore could be playing his last year in the Blue and White. Patterson is capable of playing with anyone in the country, exemplified by his complete dominance of Tyler Hansbrough, Everybody's All-American, last year (Yes, I know Psycho T scored 14 points that day, but 10 of those were on free throws).
A potential All-American, Patterson will carry the low post game and most possesions will go through him at some point. Patterson is the foundation for everything else the Cats hope to build upon this year.
C: Perry Stevenson. "SWAT," as they call him, improved tremendously during the last half of the season. Always a defensive presence, Perry has developed a mid-range and even a three-point game. If Perry can hit baskets consistently, it opens things up for Patterson, which opens things up for Meeks, which...you get the point.
C: Josh Harrelson. A Junior College transfer, Harrelson will be used to spell both big men. He's got touch out to the 3-point line but can also bang low. A bit inconsistent in two exhibition games, scoring 17 in one and playing only three minutes in the other, Harrelson will have to develop a better understanding on the defensive end, as well as, making good decisions with the ball in order to truly help this front line.
Other key players:
AJ Stewart: Seemingly always in the doghouse last year, Stewart is the most explosive player on the roster. An athletic mismatch waiting to happen.
Kevin Galloway: Another JC Transfer, Galloway will hopefully be able to play some minutes at both guard positions. He was brought in to give some experience to the backcourt, but has disappointed so far in the preseason, logging only 10 minutes total in two games.
Jared Carter: The enigma. Seven feet tall, but hasn't yet lived up to the expectations. Shoulder injuries have slowed a promising career. However, if this center can log 10-15 minutes per game and play some good defense, Coach Clyde will get him on the floor.
Overall, this Kentucky Wildcats team has the players and potential to make some noise this season. A lot of questions will be answered on an early trip to Chapel Hill to face the preseason No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels. A win there and anything could be possible this season.
Always playing a difficult out-of-conference schedule, UK will also face the likes of Louisville, Miami (FL) and Indiana before getting to the SEC schedule.
In the SEC, the Cats are currently picked third in the SEC East Division, staring up at Florida and Tennessee. Both Florida and Tennessee have talented, but young rosters. If Kentucky can get rolling by the start of the conference schedule, there is no reason they cannot compete and beat these two teams.
Season Predictions: 24-7. First in SEC East. Win SEC Tournament thanks to huge games by Patterson, Meeks and Harrelson. NCAA Tournament No. 5 seed. Lose in Sweet Sixteen.