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Is UK Hoops still a top-15 team without Smith?

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WBSK 09_10 UK_MichSt NCAA Web 32.jpgThe UK Hoops team received a pretty devastating blow recently when it was announced Wednesday that point guard Amber Smith will be out indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.

It's uncertain whether or not Smith will be able to return at all for the 2010-11 season, but chances are she will miss a significant amount of time.

Smith was an integral part of UK's historic run to the NCAA Elite Eight last season as the starting point guard for the up-tempo Cats. The 5-foot-9 guard out of Winter Haven, Fla., averaged a career-high 9.2 points and team-high 4.4 assists per game last year.

"This is very difficult for Amber to go through, entering her senior season," head coach Matthew Mitchell said in a release on UK's home page. "We are aware of how tough this is on her and we are going to do everything we can as a basketball program and her basketball family to support her and her rehabilitation. We are confident she will work hard and get back on the court as soon as possible but in the meantime she leaves very big shoes to fill. Anyone who follows our program knows what a big part Amber Smith plays in what we do. Our entire team will have to pull together to make up for this huge loss."

Now the question remains, can UK overcome the loss? Is this still a top-15 team without Smith? Any other year I would have said no because Smith is that valuable to the team in terms of her passion and leadership, but that may not be the case this year. Here are three reasons why I think the team can overcome the setback:

1. Victoria Dunlap and A'dia Mathies. Really, not much else needs to be said. Anytime you return both a Southeastern Conference Player to your roster and an SEC Freshman of the Year you're going to be competitive. While Smith was a valuable asset to last year's historic postseason run, Dunlap and Mathies were options 1A and 1B. Dunlap torched the league by leading the team in scoring (18.1 ppg) and rebounding (8.4 rpg) while setting UK single-season records in blocks (65), blocks per game (1.9) and steals (107). Meanwhile, Mathies, as just a freshman, scored in double figures in 26 of Kentucky's 36 games. She will continue to improve as she gets more experience, only adding to the league's most productive duo.

2. UK's new style of play. Last year's up-tempo style of play took the SEC by storm. Kentucky ranked third in the nation in turnover margin with 7.33 turnovers per game. Despite the loss of Smith, that style of play is going nowhere and should continue to flourish in women's college basketball. Even better, the up-tempo style of play is still a perfect match for the remaining guards on the team. Point guard Crytal Riley, who transferred from LSU, served as a valuable backup to Smith last year and has the type of speed and athleticism that suits Mitchell's full-court game. Also, Mathies played point guard in spurts in her first season while the Cats waited for Riley to become eligible from a transfer.

3. Help is on the way in the form of UK's highest-ranking class in school history. Kentucky's freshman class, which includes Sarah Beth Barnette, Maegan Conwright, Samantha Drake, Kastine Evans and Jennifer O'Neill, is ranked No. 5 by Blue Star Basketball and No. 10 by ESPN HoopGurlz. All five could see considerable time in their first season and should help cushion the blow of Smith. O'Neill, who was already in the plans to be the point guard of the future, could be groomed this season as exactly that.

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