Fans of the Big Blue must be restless. There aren’t enough good reasons to begin actively calling for Tubby Smith’s head. But there also aren’t enough signs to enthusiastically support him. Such is the state of a basketball program that has hung around the top ten for the last two years but at the same time hasn’t been a real threat to claim the national championship that its fans demand. The situation is uncomfortable enough that off-season rumors of Tubby going to Virginia, a team that finished dead last in the ACC, were widely considered credible.

The Wildcats face an uncertain future in 2005-06. Kelenna Azubuike turned pro and found an uncertain future himself. Randolph Morris followed the Azubuike career plan, but has decided to try to return to college after going undrafted like Azubuike. Then there’s reserve forward Joe Crawford who tried to leave in the middle of last season, but was convinced to stay. The one guy who seemed to relish his time in Lexington, Chuck Hayes, graduated. And the incoming recruiting class hasn’t received glowing reviews.

So is UK headed for a breakdown this season? To answer that question, we need a breakdown ourselves.

To know where Kentucky is going, we have to know where they came from. Fortunately, they are an easy team to peg.

2005 Rankings
Adj. Pythag Rank    9
Pomeroy Rank       11
Sagarin Rank        9
AP Pre-tourney      7

It’s safe to assume Kentucky was on the bottom end of the top 10 in 2005. Next I want to know what their strengths were. Here is how they ranked in the basic categories last season.

           Offense  Defense
Adj. Eff.    25        6
Shooting     52       47
Turnovers    45       13
Rebounding   79      174 
FT Rate     168       76

These categories are based on the four factors concept with rankings here, and definitions of each category here.

Kentucky was a defense-dominated team. Sure, they were solid offensively, but they didn’t have the kind of firepower that can win a national title. Defensively, they succeeded by forcing turnovers. Anyone that has seen Rajon Rondo operate knows that he could be considered the most disruptive guard in the nation without much argument. So it’s nice to see the data agree with that observation. The frontline of Azubuike/Hayes/Morris (especially Hayes) was also formidable defensively. But it was Rondo that pushed this defense from good to great.

So let’s look at the player stats for last season and speculate on how Coach Smith will fill the holes left by the departing players. Here are the vitals for Kentucky’s players last season, with players in parentheses not returning for ‘06…

           ORtg %Poss %Shots %Min   TO%  OR%  DR% FTRate eFG%
(Azubuike)..115  23.4  26.8  72.1  14.3  6.9 12.1  31.5  55.1
Sparks…...111  20.9  23.7  69.1  18.5  1.2  7.7  18.0  52.7
(Hayes).....113  21.1  20.2  72.4  17.9 12.2 19.0  39.2  51.2
Morris…...111  22.3  21.0  48.9  13.5  9.1 15.8  71.9  52.8
Rondo…....104  20.0  16.6  62.1  24.0  2.8 10.6  51.5  53.5
Bradley….. 97  24.0  22.7  30.4  24.9  4.8 12.1  32.8  46.3
Alleyne…..124  13.3  12.2  19.5  16.6  6.6 17.6  65.2  65.2
Moss….....116  16.6  15.0  28.5  21.0  7.5 12.0  49.4  59.0
Crawford…. 91  17.9  19.8  25.2  19.1  7.1 11.9  26.8  42.8
Perry….... 97  17.2  20.1  28.2  15.1  9.7 11.6  22.7  42.7
Thomas…... 83  13.9  10.1  13.7  33.9  5.6 15.6  55.6  59.3
Obrzut…...100  10.9   8.3  13.0  30.5  2.0  9.9  61.9  57.1
(Carrier)... 79  12.0  13.1  11.8  27.4  2.9  5.8   6.7  41.7

You often heard about Kentucky’s depth, but it wasn’t quality depth by a longshot. No one off the bench showed the ability to pick up a sizable chunk of the offensive load. Only guard Ramel Bradley can’t be considered an offensive role player, but he turned the ball over too often and shot poorly. No one expects Hayes and Azubuike to be completely replaced, but there isn’t a candidate to impersonate those guys for long periods of time. It may be up to this guy to fill most of Hayes’ minutes…

             ORtg %Poss %Shots %Min  PPG  TO% OR% DR%  FTRate  eFG%
Rekalin Sims  108  31.6  35.8  69.6 19.4 14.4 9.7 27.3  38.9   44.2

Those are Sims’ numbers as a 6-9 forward for Salt Lake Community College last season. And Kentucky fans better hope that there’s not much value in them, because his shooting is horrid for a prospective power forward. Even if we ignore the sub-30% three-point shooting, Sims was a mere 44% on two-pointers. Maybe it’s not a concern since he took so many shots – 545, exceeded by only three players in D1 – that you can’t possibly translate his shooting ability to being a role player at UK. But when I see that fellow juco all-American Chaz Spicer shot over 60% on twos as a power forward, I have to think there will be a serious adjustment period for Sims to play the type of game that Hayes played.

Regarding a replacement for Azubuike, well, there just isn’t one. Not that it’s ever easy to replace the best offensive player on a good offensive team, but there are no viable options that can approach Azubuike’s production. It will be mainly a combination of Crawford and Perry, and perhaps one of them will have a breakthrough, but it’s reasonable to expect a significant drop at this position.

What about at the 5? Randolph Morris may miss half the season serving NCAA punishment for unceremoniously declaring for the draft, loosely associating with an agent, attending workouts on the NBA’s dime, and then going undrafted. It’s easy to see why Tubby Smith allowed Morris back into the fold despite being treated poorly when Morris departed. All Tubby has is a group of 7-foot projects to fill in for Morris. The key to UK offense this season may be Shagari Alleyne. Alleyne was solid, if awkward at times, in limited minutes in ‘05. Offensively, Alleyne did little more than dunk when the opportunity arose, and there aren’t any kids imitating his offensive moves on Kentucky playgrounds. He’d be expected to assert himself more with the lack of scoring options this season. If Alleyne succeeds in his November/December trial run, then Morris can move to the 4 and suddenly things don’t look so bad. Things will look bad if Lukasz Obrzut sees more than 10 minutes a game this season. Obrzut is a non-factor offensively and defensively. He played 179 minutes with a grand total of two blocks and three offensive rebounds. Did I mention he’s seven feet tall? Freshman Jared Carter should end up as the backup seven-footer.

The situation in the backcourt doesn’t change from last season, with Rondo and Patrick Sparks getting spelled by Ravi Moss and Ramel Bradley. The one thing that does change is that this group will be counted on more to provide offense. Rondo was in a great place last season, able to be a distributor for the most part. He will be forced into a bigger role on the offensive end in 2006. Can he become Chris Paul? Maybe not, but his ability to get to the hoop and to the line bode well for him to carry more of the offensive load. Sparks is dangerously close to entering Gerry McNamara-land in terms of praise-to-production ratio. He’s a good, but not great, three-point shooter. Big performances against the in-state rival and in the regional finals pushed his reputation ahead of his ability.

To summarize, Kentucky’s defense will be great. With Rondo, they’ll still force a ton of turnovers, and increased playing time of the shot-blocker Alleyne may lower the opponents’ shooting percentage further. The only way that the offense will improve is if Rondo and Alleyne eat up a much larger chunk of possessions while remaining efficient. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rondo did that, but Alleyne is another matter. As a team, Kentucky may maintain a decent shooting percentage, but rebounding and turnovers will suffer with the new players in the lineup. Even when Morris comes back, look forward to a lot of games in the 60s, and a few more in the 50s than you are used to seeing from the Wildcats.

Each year since the probation season of 1991, Kentucky has entered the NCAA tournament no worse than a five-seed. The presence of Rondo and Morris alone give them a good chance of keeping that streak going, but it may not look pretty.