LEXINGTON, KY. — Most college basketball towns would be more than content with a 22-13 record, a trip to the conference semifinals and a four-point loss at the hands of a national power in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
This isn't most college basketball towns. This is the home of the winningest program in history. And for Kentucky fans, last season just wasn't good enough.
It's a sentiment shared by Wildcats coach Tubby Smith, entering the 10th season of his tenure in Lexington, which began with a national championship but hasn't produced another Final Four appearance since - the longest such drought for the storied program.
"I'll just say it was bad," Smith said of 2005-06, which resulted in a 9-7 record in the Southeastern Conference - the Wildcats' worst in 16 years - and an 87-83 loss to top-seeded Connecticut in the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore Rajon Rondo, the lightning-quick guard who led the Wildcats last season in points, rebounds, assists and steals, left early for the NBA. Senior Patrick Sparks, who had a down year but at times still showed a lethal touch from long range, also is gone.
So with last season's sag and the backcourt departures, Kentucky enters the season no longer as the titans of the SEC but perhaps lacking the element of surprise enjoyed by a typical underdog. During the conference's media days last month, opposing coaches cautioned that teams should not take Kentucky lightly.
"We are definitely improved," said Lukasz Obrzut, a 7-foot-1 senior center from Poland. "A new word for me, cohesiveness. We are coming together as a team and working on our communication skills."
No Wildcat was selected to the SEC's preseason first team, and only center Randolph Morris made the second team. Rather than rely on one star to carry the load, the Wildcats will seek chemistry through a variety of spare parts, each of whom showed flashes of stardom a year ago.
Morris, a junior, was suspended for the first half of last season after he tried unsuccessfully to get drafted by an NBA team. It took him a while to get his bearings and re-emerge as an inside force down the stretch, but he still managed to average 13 points and 6 rebounds a game.
"Last year, I didn't really know my situation or know where I was going to be," Morris said. "But this year I'm in a very good position where I know where I stand and I know what I need to do. That makes it easier."
Obrzut and Jared Carter, a sophomore who considered transferring, provide depth at center. Should Smith opt for a larger lineup, Morris can play power forward.
Rondo was the headliner of a trio of guards that came to Kentucky before the 2004-05 season. The others appear ready to contribute.
When Ramel Bradley is hitting his shots, few players look better from three-point range. When he's not, few players look worse. He'll take over the point guard duties and already has emerged as the team's most vocal leader.
"I've matured a lot this year," Bradley said. "I've just got to key on what Coach wants me to do, not push the ball but find the open teammates."
Injuries and Morris' suspension forced fellow junior Joe Crawford into a forward role for much of last season. This season, he should settle into his more natural position as a shooting guard. Although he had an undisclosed offseason operation that he feared might threaten his ability to play, Crawford says he has never felt better and is ready to lead.