By LARRY VAUGHT
ARLINGTON — Kentucky’s players were still trying to come to grips when their 60-54 loss to Connecticut in Monday’s national championship game when they started getting the question — would they be back at UK or head to the NBA.
“I don’t even know. I am not thinking about that right now. I am just thinking about this game,” said freshman center Dakari Johnson.
Next he got asked if that meant it was too early to say he would definitely be back at UK.
“I don’t know. I am still trying to deal with this loss,” Johnson said.
That’s basically what twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison said except they added they would have to discuss it with their family. Ditto for James Young. Julius Randle, considered the player that would be drafted the highest, dodged the question, too, as he softly answered question while trying to handle the disappointment of Monday’s loss.
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who was injured and did not play the last three tourney games, had more to say than his teammates about what the future might hold.
“I have no idea. I haven’t thought about it like that,” Cauley-Stein said when asked what it was like to be together with so many teammates for the final time. “I am just trying to relish the moment with my brothers and see what some of them are doing. That is kind of how I based my decision last year (to come back to UK rather than going to the NBA.)
Two NBA scouts at the Final Four said Cauley-Stein was UK’s most intriguing prospect after Randle. His size and athleticism have scouts contemplating what his potential could be once he fully commits to improving his offensive game. Both said his injury — Cauley-Stein said after the game he had a “cracked bone, stress fracture” in his ankle — would not be an issue unless it was more severe than it appeared.
“I can see coming back. I feel this emptiness in me like I’ve still got something to prove and I’ve still got so much stuff to work on in my game,” he said. “I went up from last year and now I want to make another jump in my game. Could I come back to school and make that step and be safe or do I make the jump to the league and mess everything up? What if I go there and don’t do what I thought and I’m stuck and can’t come back to school?
“I love school. I love being at Kentucky. I love the fan base. I love the community. So why not stay until they make you leave? IYou just get better as you get older. There are so many things that go through my head.”
That would be what he called “millions of dollars” and being able to work only on his game without balancing school, which he called a full-time job.
“That kind of weighs in. My family weighs in. I will talk to my family and coaches and then decide what is best for my future and my game and if I could be happy either way.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari does not discourage players from leaving if he feels they are ready to make the jump. The question becomes how many of these players are truly ready — and NBA scouts warn that what happens in March won’t wipe out a season’s worth of observations.
“Well, I’ll sit down with each young man individually, probably have their family either with us or on a speaker phone and get them information and say, ‘If I can help you with anything, let me know. Tell me what you want to do, what do I need to do to help you?’ Calipari said after Monday’s loss.
“I kind of stay out of the decision making. I just get them information. So we’ll see. I have no idea because I haven’t talked to them and none of us have talked about that. We were playing to win the national championship. But now that the season’s over, it is about the players. It’s no longer about the program. It’s no longer about the team.
“It’s about each individual player on this team now. They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Season’s over. Now it’s about them. And we’ll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves.”