Tubby Smith's first Kentucky team won the 1998 NCAA title. In gleeful recognition of its repeated rallies in the NCAA Tournament, the nickname-fixated fans christened their seventh national champion the Comeback Cats.
All well and good. But that handle might be even more appropriate for Smith's current Cats.
Lavishly skilled Tayshaun Prince came back, after declaring for the NBA draft.
Bullish sidekick Keith Bogans did the same.
Jules Camara, the 6-foot-11 Senegalese forward with even greater potential than those two, came back after nearly transferring when given a one-year athletic department suspension for drunken driving. He's eligible this fall.
Center Marvin Stone came back, after strongly considering a transfer on more than one occasion during a troubled sophomore season.
And Smith himself came back, after his stint as an Olympic assistant coach produced speculation that he was in the pro pipeline as well. He signed a new five-year contract recently that keeps his compensation among the nation's elite.
The only Cat who didn't come back is coach's son and public lightning rod Saul Smith, who plans to move on to the relative peace and quiet of law school. That hurts Kentucky in the effort category, but it could be more than offset by the dual tension release for Tubby and the Rupp Arena fans. For the first time under Smith, The Saul Issue is not poisoning the Lexington air -- or airwaves.
If all, half or even a couple of those comebacks don't materialize, this year is ordinary (by Wildcats standards). But a clean sweep of the comeback slate means Kentucky is back. Big as ever.
"Every year we expect to be one of the top teams in the country," Tubby Smith said, in his first attempt to low-key the pressures that await.
It won't work. This year the towering expectations are realistic, having crystallized last month when Bogans joined Prince in announcing his withdrawal from the draft. This is Smith's first taste of what it's like to begin a season with fully focused national title visions dancing in people's heads.
Awash in 1-through-10 talent, the Wildcats are widely considered the primary threat to a Duke repeat. Everyone else lines up behind those superpowers. (And aren't latter-day college basketball discussions always more stimulating when you start with Duke and Kentucky?)
After an unconscionable three seasons without a Final Four, the Cats are carrying win-or-die marching orders from their mildly demanding fan base. (Perhaps you missed the recent Internet fan board discussion under the heading: "Kentucky undefeated in 2001-02?" To the credit of most respondents, the answer was an emphatic "no".)
A season that ends anywhere short of the Georgia Dome, site of the 2002 Final Four, is not likely to be showered in confetti. Neither will some of the other trappings of recent Kentucky history be tolerated:
Ten losses (each of the past two seasons).
|If Jules Camara can stay out of trouble, he can cause plenty for SEC teams in 2001-02.|
Early struggles (the grumbling started briskly after a 3-5 opening record last year, 4-4 the previous season).
Anything less than annihilation of arch rival Louisville, which has a new coach vaguely familiar to Big Blue Nation. Smith caught enough flak for his shaky 2-2 record against Denny Crum; difficulty handling a depleted roster led by Rick Pitino might put him on the witness protection list. (College basketball's Must-See Game of the Year is set for Dec. 29 -- in Rupp. Pitino is advised to find out whether Armani makes anything in Kevlar.)
So bring on the hype. The Wildcats have the talent to justify it.
"We should be one of the top teams in the country," said Prince, likely to wind up in the high-rent neighborhood of Kentucky's top 10 career scorers. "We are now deep at every position. We have bigger bodies. We just have to continue to improve and we should be there."
The only hitch came at the end of June, when space-eating sophomore center Jason Parker blew out a knee in a pickup game. He'll miss at least six months, putting a dent in the starting lineup. The 6-8, 255-pound Parker came on strong at the end of last season, capped by his 22-point, 13-rebound performance in an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen loss to Southern California.
First shot at replacing Parker goes to 6-10 junior Stone, who is running out of chances to prove that his college career is not a bust. The former McDonald's All-American has produced precious little his first two years at UK, generating few headlines beyond academic and legal trouble his sophomore year. He'll get every opportunity now to turn it around with Parker on the shelf.
Offensive production at center isn't a must for this team anyway. Not with what UK has at the other positions.
Prince and Bogans could form a 1-2 punch almost as powerful as Shane Battier and Jason Williams last season. (Bogans badly wanted to stay in the draft, but a dim performance at the Chicago camp brought him back to reality.) But their combined 34 points per game last season could take a hit with the return of Camara, who needs only some more savvy and strength to buttress his breathtaking athleticism and surprising skills (the J is reliable out to 17 feet).
Camara, in turn, must share interior minutes with a flotilla of big men: Stone, offensive force Marquis Estill and freshman rebounding specialist Chuck Hayes. Add in the fact that Prince is 6-9 with Sam Perkins arms, and nobody in America has more length and width than Kentucky -- even with Parker out. Smith loves to collect big men, and this is a quite a crew of them.
The perimeter is populated, too, beyond Prince and Bogans.
Fearless Gerald Fitch became the glue that solidified the starting lineup last year at the two-guard, as an unheralded freshman, and could see time at point this year. Sophomore Eriq Daniels contributed beyond expectations last year at small forward. McDonald's All-American Rashaad Carruth arrives as a pure shooter who will demand minutes. Senior J.P. Blevins will play plenty at both guard spots. Sophomore Cliff Hawkins looks like the leading candidate to inherit the starting point guard spot -- if a stylistic compromise can be reached between Hawkins' improvisational penchant and Smith's structured, low-risk offense and disciplined defense.
Pile it all up and Smith actually faces a vanishing problem for programs where kids routinely leave early: How to handle too much talent.
The first priority was trimming a scholarship. Estill bailed Smith out an overbooking predicament by giving up his ride for the season, compelling Tubby to utter the Hyperbole of the Year -- in a prepared statement, no less -- by labeling Estill a "hero." Fire fighters, EMTs and war veterans everywhere must have loved that.
The second priority is dispensing minutes in a manner that keeps everyone happy. This is the most talent in Lexington since 1997, which featured future first-round draft picks Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Scott Padgett and Nazr Mohammed, not to mention the mother lode of '96: Anderson, Mercer, Mohammed, plus Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and Mark Pope, and those are just the draft picks.
Pitino balanced the egos and the minutes with great skill. He made consecutive national title games by selling the hoary concept of sacrificing individual glory for team accomplishment.
Now it is Smith's turn to try the sort of sell job that has only gotten tougher in the years since. It will be essential to getting the new edition of the Comeback Cats back to the Final Four.
Around the SEC
||We should be one of the top teams in the country. We are now deep at every position. We have bigger bodies. We just have to continue to improve and we should be there. ”
||— Tayshaun Prince
Florida continues to await resolution of the university police gambling probe of guard Teddy Dupay. His season could be jeopardized if it is determined that Dupay placed illegal sports wagers with a bookie, even if they were unrelated to college basketball. Dupay's mother has declared the investigation and its attendant publicity much ado about nothing, but Teddy has remained mum on the subject.
Even with Dupay in limbo and No. 1 pick Kwame Brown choosing big dollars over Billy Donovan, Florida brims with the kind of talent that can challenge Kentucky for SEC supremacy. Superstar freshmen David Lee and James White join veterans Brett Nelson, Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner, Orien Greene and Justin Hamilton.
The Gators got another boost when 6-9 Adrian Moss, who originally signed with Southwest Texas State before apparently realizing he could play, was granted a release and came to Gainesville. Moss just gained his eligibility and will be on the court this season.
Alabama did its part by sweetening coach Mark Gottfried's contract, giving him a raise and a seven-year deal. Now Gottfried has to deliver an NCAA Tournament bid against what should be an appreciably tougher schedule. Among the highlights: A trip to the Wooden Classic in December and a date with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl Classic.
A non-conference slate loaded with dog opponents and low on quality wins trap-doored the Crimson Tide into the NIT last season, a major disappointment for a team that spent a lot of time in the Top 25. Gottfried has upgraded the talent to the point that 'Bama can survive back-to-back hasty departures by former prep wonderboys -- Schea Cotton last year, Gerald Wallace this year -- but progress needs to continue. Splendid junior wingman Rod Grizzard doesn't figure to stick around past this season.
The league's two new coaches, Tennessee's Buzz Peterson and South Carolina's Dave Odom, certainly aren't stepping into toxic dumps.
Peterson inherits all of Jerry Green's dysfunctional talent -- Ron Slay, Vincent Yarbrough et. al. -- and doesn't have to deal with departed point guard Tony Harris. Teach a little defense, infuse a smidge of work ethic, and the Volunteers could redeem themselves this season.
Odom arrives from Wake Forest to a two-man nucleus of Chuck Eidson and Rolando Howell. Eidson, who wowed the league as a freshman, is recovering from a blown knee. He actually left school after it happened, to the chagrin of the Gamecocks, but apparently rehabbed successfully from home. The 6-9 Howell, a prep All-American who came on at the end of last season, is a future star.
Auburn is interested in showing some staying power within the league's elite. The Tigers slipped last year after losing Chris Porter, Mamadou N'diyae, Doc Robinson and other principals from their 1998-2000 run. But now they bring in a class widely considered among the top five in the nation, featuring 6-8 freshmen Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson.
LSU plummeted back to pushover status last season, after Stromile Swift and half the rest of the roster took leave of Baton Rouge. Junior-college star Kedrick Brown, considered the top two-year player in the nation, was supposed to lead the rally this year -- until he jumped to the NBA and became a lottery pick. Back to the drawing board for John Brady, who at least signed some other impact players -- including 6-9 wide body Shawnson Johnson.
Georgia appears intent on another year of playing all comers. The Bulldogs made the 2001 NCAA Tournament solely on strength of schedule, and they'll get another rigorous season going in the same manner by playing Georgetown in the Tipoff Classic Nov. 19.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury upgraded his staff when he landed longtime Leonard Hamilton assistant Stan Jones. He became available, obviously, when Hamilton was discarded after one ugly season in the NBA. But Stansbury needs to feel some urgency of his own, especially with counterpart Rod Barnes working wonders at arch-rival Mississippi.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com