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Meeks happy to be back

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The suits are nice, clean and carefully hung in the back of Jodie Meeks' closet.

As good as the Kentucky guard bashfully admits he looks in the fancy duds, Meeks would rather keep them tucked away.

"Maybe I can wear 'em at the banquet at the end of the season," the Norcross grad said.

Beats the alternative, a lesson Meeks learned during an injury plagued sophomore season in which he spent most of his time nattily clad at the end of bench watching Kentucky endure a roller coaster year under new head coach Billy Gillispie.

A stress fracture in his pelvis sidelined Kentucky's best shooter for six games. He managed to return briefly before a strained hip flexor and a sports hernia ended his season, turning him into a spectator as Kentucky went 18-13, losing to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

It wasn't fun, particularly for a player who had never been seriously injured since first picking up a basketball at age 3. He had surgery in April to fix the hernia and spent two long months trying to heal up and wondering if the explosiveness and shooting touch he showcased during his breakout freshman year - when he averaged 8.7 points and shot 90 percent from the free-throw line - would return.

"There was always doubts," Meeks said.

Consider them gone, at least in the eyes of Gillispie, who didn't rule out using Meeks as a point guard, a position he hasn't played since high school.

"I think he's going to have a fantastic year and I wouldn't put any limits on him in any respect," Gillispie said. "I just expect a humongous year from him based on what I've seen so far and we're not going to limit him in any way."

If the Wildcats want to find someone to help replace the production and leadership left by the graduation of stars Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford - who combined for 34 points and nearly all the big shots last year - Gillispie would be wise to let Meeks let it fly.

Meeks shrugs when asked if the longer 3-point line will affect his shot. Truth is, he doesn't usually see the line anyway. He can regularly pull up from 25-feet, and most of his teammates have been on the wrong end of one of his "heat checks" - basketball code for taking otherwise ill-advised shot just to see how hot you really are.

"I usually end up guarding him in pickup games, and I like to think I'm a good defender, but there are times when he just puts it up so quickly and from so far out, you just don't have a shot," said guard Michael Porter. "You know he can put it up from anywhere and you think you're ready and you're not."

Yet Meeks knows he'll have to be more than a spot-up shooter for the Wildcats to win their first SEC East title in four years - a lifetime in Kentucky basketball. He's tried to become a better defender and more adept at creating his own shot.

"I think shooting, I've handled that pretty well but I've been working on my ballhandling and slashing, trying to be a better all-around player," he said.

Gillispie is hoping Meeks will make strides off the court and help fill some of the leadership vacuum left by Crawford and Bradley's departure. Meeks is rooming with sophomore star Patrick Patterson this year, and the two have tried to help their new teammates - a whopping 11 in all - make the transition to life under one of college basketball's most exacting microscopes.

"I think they're talking a lot about leading this team and leading it in the right direction and understanding the responsibility of leadership," Gillispie said. "It's not only when things are going bad or while things are going good. It's a 24-hour-a-day job and they're carrying it out."