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For months now, basketball fans in Kentucky have been wondering how a program with the biggest and best of everything can lose to a Middle Tennessee in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. That's what happened, of course, to the Kentucky Wildcats—Mildcats, some called them—last March. Inevitably, a lot of fingers were pointed at Coach Joe B. Hall. However, even as some disgruntled Kentucky fans passed out bumper stickers that said JOE BE GONE, others were getting ready for a season of retribution. After all, Big Sam—7'1" Sam Bowie—would be back for 1982-83 after missing all of last season with a hairline fracture in his left shinbone. And with Bowie, well, the Middle Tennessees of the world wouldn't have Kentucky to kick around anymore.

But then it was learned that Bowie's fracture not only hadn't healed, but also that bone-graft surgery would be required. Now it appears that Bowie will be in a cast until Dec. 14 and out until at least mid-January. But this season Hall and his players will try to avoid the same kind of limb limbo—will Sam play it again or won't he?—that proved so distracting in 1981-82. "Last year we spent a lot of time looking over our shoulders for Sam," says senior Guard Dirk Minniefield. "But this year we're looking at it that Sam isn't going to come back. If he does, it's a big plus and hallelujah. But we've got to go with what we've got."

What they've got, of course, is enough to challenge for the NCAA title—provided, of course, they can avoid the late-season malaise that has caused each of the last three campaigns to end in abrupt disappointment. When Bowie and Minniefield came to UK in 1979 with Derrick Hord and Charles Hurt, it was a foregone conclusion that the Wildcats would be a national contender. Instead, their postseason tournament record is a poor 1-3.

To go farther this year, UK will need consistency from Minniefield and firepower from Hord. It also will need three newcomers—redshirt Bret Bearup (6'9") and blue-chip freshmen Kenny Walker (6'8") and Todd May (6'8")—to fill in for Bowie and take some of the rebounding load off Hurt and Center Melvin Turpin.

At the guard opposite Minniefield, Hall can choose a shooter (Jim Master), a penetrator (Quicky Dicky Beal) or a ball handler (freshman Roger Harden). But the problem at Kentucky won't be talent or depth. It will be rebuilding the confidence that has been shaken by the Middle Tennessee debacle and the Bowie limbo.