And then there were two…
This is it for Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford. The final two remaining players of a gem of a recruiting class that has largely left expectations unfulfilled. A class that included three McDonald’s All-Americans, a class that proved Tubby could land a big-time recruit, a class that was supposed to hang a few more banners in the Rupp Arena rafters, is now down to two. Rajon Rondo bolted Lexington after two years, and he’ll be feeding passes to Kevin Garnett this year instead of Patrick Patteron. Randolph Morris took a more winding road, but he too will suit up in the NBA this year instead of for the Cats. Both players demonstrated their talent in their brief careers, but both also left fans somewhat frustrated by their consistency. So the onus falls on Bradley and Crawford to save the class’s reputation, and see if they can go out on top, where many believed they would spend their entire careers.
Sure, it hasn’t been bad as some would have you believe. Although they haven’t lived up to the lofty standards of some UK fans, both have still put together solid careers. Both players should join the 1,000-point club this year, becoming the first teammates to do it since Erik Daniels and Gerald Fitch in 2004. They’ve won 72 games, and were within a couple possessions of reaching the Final Four as freshmen.
However, on the down side, they’ve also lost double-digit games the past two seasons, and have bowed out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years. They’ve watched bitter rival Florida carve out a place in the history books with back-to-back national championships, and they’ve been repeatedly burned by a missed recruit from their own backyard, in Tennessee’s Chris Lofton.
But all that can change this year. New coach Billy Gillispie has already infused the program with an energy it seemed to be lacking in recent years. Gillispie’s arrival has expectations high in Lexington, and both Bradley and Crawford figure prominently into those plans.
Bradley has always had the swagger of a big-time point guard, but last year his ability finally outshined his potential. He more than tripled the number of assists he had as a sophomore, and was third on the team in scoring. His turnovers also climbed, but his shooting percentages went up across the board, and he finished second in the SEC by shooting 82 percent from the free throw line. With Gillispie looking to push the pace this year, and with a multitude of weapons on the perimeter, Bradley has everything in place to have a terrific senior season.
Crawford should also benefit from the variety of weapons the Cats will employ. UK’s second-leading scorer last year, Crawford has the size and strength to get to the basket at will, but has struggled with consistency. He has shown that he can be taken out of games early if his shot isn’t falling, but a quicker pace should help to offset that. With the continued development of Jodie Meeks and the addition of freshman wing Alex Legion, Crawford should find plenty of opportunities to showcase his athleticism and ever-improving shot.
To top things off, only Tennessee seems to be sure of what they have entering the season. Arkansas and Mississippi State both should again be solid, but it appears the SEC East could be up for grabs. It’s not unreasonable to think these Cats could again climb to the top of the league, building on a unique collection of experienced seniors and talented youth. Bradley and Crawford have seen both highs (2004 last-second victory over Louisville) and lows (2006 blow-out loss to Kansas), and you can bet they’re looking to go out on a high note.
So stay tuned Cats fans. The best may be yet to come.