Editor's note: With the men's college basketball season starting to ramp back up, Yahoo! Sports analyst Clark Kellogg picks the teams he thinks have the best shot at making it to the Sweet 16 in 2006.
Each pick is listed alphabetically. Check back during the week for his latest selections.
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What a season last year for the young Wildcats. They won another SEC regular-season title, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and, to my surprise, advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Michigan State in a thrilling overtime game (I had the Wildcats bowing to both Cincinnati and Utah last year).
The combination of tenacious defense, a physical frontline, clutch scoring from Kelenna Azubuike and Patrick Sparks, the leadership of Chuck Hayes and the outstanding point guard play of freshman Rajon Rondo had Kentucky a few key plays away from the Final Four. And as always, Tubby Smith and his staff did a terrific job getting the team to defend and play together.
The strength of this year's team undoubtedly will be its backcourt. Rondo is special. His excellent speed and quickness, combined with his condor-like wingspan, makes him extremely disruptive on defense. And with an improved jump shot to complement his ability to penetrate, he'll vie for All-America honors.
Sparks will handle the other guard spot and provide excellent passing and clutch shooting. Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Ravi Moss, Bobby Perry and Brandon Stockton all are very capable perimeter players, and that will allow Smith to play three, maybe even four guards at times – although Crawford and Perry most likely will get their minutes at small forward.
There is ample size and pretty good talent up front in Shagari Alleyne, Lukasz Obrzut, Sheray Thomas and junior college transfer Rekalin Sims. But the most talented Kentucky big man is Randolph Morris. He is waiting to find out his eligibility status for this season after entering the NBA draft and going undrafted, but all indicators point to him being back with the Wildcats. Late last year he showed flashes of being a dominating interior force at both ends of the floor. He has pretty good hands and feet, is extremely powerful and has shown good scoring moves in the post.
The ingredients are there for the Wildcats not only to be the class of the SEC but also to be legitimate NCAA title contenders. But there are some concerns.
While the guards are very good, they are not very tall. In most cases their overall speed will negate a size disadvantage, but against some of the other elite teams it could be a problem. Kentucky's defense will generate a lot of scoring, but perimeter shooting in the halfcourt offense needs to improve. So, too, does the rebounding. With the big, strong bodies on this team, they should pride themselves on dominating the glass. And while it's nice to have the depth, frontcourt size and talent the Wildcats have, it could be a challenge for Smith and his staff to find the ideal style and combinations to maximize those attributes.
As I said earlier, Smith and his staff do a terrific job getting their teams to defend and play together, so my last point was more of an observation than a concern. And when you boil it all down, it looks like the insatiable Bluegrass faithful might get their fill this year.
- Tubby Smith