Something to prove: Highly touted junior class out to show its worth

One is a loquacious, gaudy point guard that has never met a shot he didn’t like.

Another is a leaping slasher that has never met a defender he hasn’t wanted to dissect.

The last is a mellow post-master that has never met a shot he didn’t want to block.

It was only two years ago that the triumvirate — Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Randolph Morris — came to Lexington to play basketball for UK. And when they arrived, high expectations came with them.

Recruiting analyst Bill Hodge ranked the group — which included current Boston Celtic Rajon Rondo — as the nation’s top class. Morris and Crawford, along with Rondo, were top-20 recruits. Bradley was a top-100 prospect.

Everything seemed to be lining up for the Final Four-starved Cats, who hadn’t reached college basketball’s pinnacle since 1998.

But somehow, somewhere, something went wrong.

“It’s in the back of our minds,” Morris said. “We have to fill what we want to do or what our expectations were, and it’s definitely in the back of our minds to go out and perform and live up to the hype that we got when we were freshmen.”

The hype almost materialized that year after each had a stellar rookie season.

Morris started all but one game and averaged 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. He scored a season-high 20 points in the NCAA tournament.

Crawford played in 31 of the team’s games and saved his best performance for the postseason, when he threw in 14 points against LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Bradley played in all 34 of the team’s games and averaged 5.8 points in conference play.

Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction for the class, but even with their run to the Elite Eight that year, something was missing from the group in the eyes of UK’s fans.

Crawford was lampooned when he abruptly left UK during the middle of his freshman year and went back home to Michigan.

Bradley has been faulted throughout his career for firing off too many shots when he maybe could have made the extra pass.

Morris suffered the most abuse when he entered the National Basketball Association draft after his freshman season. Morris regained his eligibility and returned to school after he went undrafted.

Morris said leaving UK was painful but that he was fortunate to have his teammates welcoming him back.

“With the support the team and the coaching staff gave me, it wasn’t hard mentally at all,” Morris said. “I think the most difficult thing was to physically get back into game shape the first couple of games.”

Bradley said he now understands what his role is on the team is after some uncertainty early in his career.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get this team back the way it needs to be,” Bradley said. “We want to win, and I just want to show my leadership on the court the best way that I can.”

“Anything we need, I’m willing to do,” he said.

And apparently, the rest of the team is too.

Last year — their sophomore season — the team had something that Bradley called “some kind of chemistry thing going on.”

So far, this year has been the complete opposite.

“Everyone is on the same page, so we won’t have the distractions that we had last year,” said head coach Tubby Smith. “That’s always a plus.”

A lot of that can be attributed to having Morris for the entire season.

When Morris entered the NBA draft, he affiliated with a sports agency and was forced to sit out 14 games because of his ties to the group.

Smith said being able to get Randolph involved in off-season workouts instead of worrying about his eligibility has really paid off in practice.

“I’ve been very impressed with him so far,” Smith said.

Smith said he has also been impressed by the amount of talking Crawford — who is generally known as reserved — has done this season.

“Joe has become a lot more vocal,” Smith said. “He’s always been a winner and been very competitive, so I know that competitive spirit has kind of permeated the team, and you can see the younger players all learn from how hard he works.”

This class came in and was expected by UK fans to win championships.

They delivered an SEC championship in 2005 but didn’t win the SEC tournament that followed a week later.

Last year, they finished in third place in the SEC East and had to play on the opening day of the conference tournament for the first time since 1979.

Smith said the team shouldn’t have to deal with those kinds of unfair expectations.

“I don’t think they should worry about other people think of them,” Smith said. “I think they should concentrate on being the best players they can be for their own reasons. I don’t put much stock in it. I feel I’m the expert in this game, not what other people think. I think they should feel the same way.”

“They did come in as celebrated players, as most athletes do at this level — some celebrated more than others — but we don’t expect any more or any less out of any of the other guys,” Smith said. “We expect them to give the best effort.”

That might be sufficient for Smith, but not for Morris.

He knows what is expected and what will shape the junior class’ legacy.

“We know what we have to do to prove to ourselves,” Morris said. “We’re not looking to prove anybody wrong. We’re just looking to live up to the hype and expectations.”