Tubby's toy box overflows
4 freshmen and Sparks a whole lot to play with
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By Michael Smith
mssmith@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky.


During a brief interruption in the University of Kentucky's first exhibition game, freshman guard Ramel Bradley took a quick inventory of his teammates on the court.

There he saw center Randolph Morris and fellow guards Joe Crawford and Rajon Rondo, all freshmen, all together on the court for the first time in Rupp Arena.

As they huddled, Bradley told with his classmates: "Let's show everybody what we can do. Let's show them we can live up to all the hype."

Welcome to the 2004-05 college basketball season, or as it's known at UK, "The Year of the Freshmen."

Never in his eight seasons as UK head coach has Tubby Smith taken the Memorial Coliseum floor on the first day of practice and witnessed so many talented newcomers. It must have felt like Christmas in October.

In addition to three McDonald's All-Americans Morris, Crawford and Rondo and a highly touted New York City guard in Bradley, Smith also has Western Kentucky University transfer Patrick Sparks, who practiced with the team last season but couldn't play.

This team might belong to heart-and-soul senior forward Chuck Hayes, but most likely it will be up to Sparks and the nation's No.1 recruiting class to get UK to the Final Four for the first time since its 1998 championship run.

Why not, especially in a year when a freshman, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, might win the Heisman Trophy?

Freshmen have been instrumental in the march to college basketball's national title before.

Just two seasons ago Syracuse won it all by taking the lead of Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin. The University of Louisville rode rookie Pervis Ellison to the 1986 title. The "Fab 5" freshman class at Michigan Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson made it to the title game in 1992, only to fall to senior Christian Laettner's Duke squad.

"Will the talent of our freshmen overcome the experience we lost? We'll see," Smith said. "These freshmen are a very mature group. They've got a good feel for the game and a good understanding of what it takes to play as a team. That's why we recruited them."

Though Hayes and junior guard Kelenna Azubuike will have plenty to say about it, it's unlikely the Wildcats can achieve the kind of success expected throughout the Bluegrass without significant contributions from the newcomers.

As many as three of them probably will start Morris at center, Rondo at point guard and Sparks at shooting guard and all five probably will be among the top eight in the rotation.

The starters might need name tags and introductions as much as they need extra work on Smith's ball-line defense. How all of these new faces mesh will be the dominant story line, especially early in the season. Sparks could be a key because he bridges the gap between new and old. As a junior transfer, he's both.

Growing up in Central City, Ky., the son of a high school coach, Sparks appreciated the importance of UK basketball. That never left him even at Western Kentucky, where he was an All-Sun Belt Conference selection and Most Outstanding Player in the 2003 league tournament.

When his coach, Dennis Felton, bolted for Georgia, Sparks obtained his release and began lobbying for a transfer to UK.

"Kentucky basketball is the cream of the crop," he said. "I wanted to compete against the best of the best."

`Tread cautiously'

Now Sparks is part of a rare extreme makeover at UK, where newcomers often have to wait their turn. The last time two freshmen were among the Cats' top five in scoring was 30 years ago when Rick Robey and Jack Givens did it. The last freshman to lead the team in scoring was Rex Chapman in 1986-87.

As for the Syracuse team that won an NCAA championship with freshmen leading the way, it was an anomaly.

Well-tested juniors Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor led Connecticut to the title last season. Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon were seniors when Maryland won it all in 2002. Duke's Shane Battier was a senior in 2001, as were Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson in 2000.

In the past, freshmen might have made up the supporting cast, but they normally were not the star attractions. Ron Mercer gave UK a boost in 1996, as did Mike Bibby for Arizona in 1997, Toby Bailey for UCLA in 1995 and Grant Hill for Duke in 1991.

"You always have to tread cautiously with incoming players," said Clark Kellogg, college basketball analyst for CBS. "There's a learning curve you can't discount. Any time you're talking about lofty expectations with primarily young players, you're setting yourself up for perhaps some disappointment.

"You have to be really patient."

Freshmen are certain to hit bumps in the road, he said, but how high will those bumps be? Will the freshmen roll right over the bumps or get knocked backward?

Those are questions that can be answered only as the season unfolds.

"These guys got to this point because they were passionate about the game, passionate about their development," Smith said. "They've been blessed with God-given talent, but they've had the discipline and the focus to do something with it, and that enhances their ability to contribute quicker than most."

A delicate blend

The past two seasons Smith hoped for success with veteran-dominated teams. His junior- and senior-laden groups won 59 of 68 games during that time, but all that experience added up to zero trips to the Final Four.

All of that chemistry and cohesion and teamwork flamed out before UK reached its goal of winning a national title, in part because not one of the most significant contributors on those teams was talented enough to be an NBA first-round pick.

"We've had teams that played together, that knew what it took to win," Smith said. "They knew about teamwork and sacrifice. But this group is as talented as any group I've ever had. They're very capable. I think this can be a Final Four team if we keep working and getting better."

His task is blending the freshmen with Sparks, Hayes, Azubuike and the rest of the veteran cast, a process that started in the summer when the freshmen reported to campus and played pickup ball with the returning players.

It wasn't unusual for the four rookies to pick up a fifth player and whip all comers.

"Everybody offers something different in ways they can help the team," Morris said. "You've got the court generals in Rajon and Ramel. Joe is so versatile because he can shoot and post up, a great athlete. And I'm down in the low post, blocking shots and rebounding and hustling. We've all got ways we can help the team."

Certainly, Smith faces the delicate task of blending all of the pieces together. If he again proves to be a master chemist, the Cats might be cutting down nets in St. Louis, site of the Final Four.

But history will be working against UK's freshmen.

"It goes both ways; it's a relationship," Hayes said of meshing the vets and the youngsters. "Both parties have to sacrifice their own goals for the goals of the team and for what's best. It's like a marriage for a few months."