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By LARRY VAUGHT
ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi says heâ€™ll know where top recruits Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad are going to play college basketball at the same time everyone else does â€” when they announce their choice on ESPNUâ€ˆWednesday night.
Obviously, Kentucky fans are going to be watching because both players have Kentucky in their top three and could be exactly what coach John Calipari needs to restock his national championship roster if, as expected, he loses Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and even Marquis Teague to the NBA draft.
â€œI think the schools recruiting these guys all have a great need for them,â€ said Biancardi. â€œShabazz has UCLA, Kentucky and Duke with UCLA and Kentucky looking like the top two. Noel could be between Kentucky and Georgetown or some still say Syracuse.â€
Kentucky obviously is the only team coming off a national championship, but Biancardi says this yearâ€™s title might impact juniors and sophomores more than top seniors like Noel and Muhammad who have developed relationships with coaches for the last 12 to 24 months.
â€œSophomores and juniors can now see that Kentucky not only recruits a certain style of player, but can be successful at a high level and win it all. (John) Calipari has now been to an Elite Eight, Final Four and won a national title in three years at Kentucky. Winning a national title put a prospect in position to think if he goes there, he can do that, too.â€
Is that a bigger draw than what Calipari has done putting players into the NBA, including likely top five picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist this year?
â€œTo be honest, I think the ability to develop guys in a short amount of time that have NBA talent and squeeze the most out of it is very appealing to kids that are talented,â€ Biancardi said. â€œHe is just not after talented kids, but kids that really want it. There are a lot of talented kids out there that donâ€™t want to work hard and be challenged in practice. If thatâ€™s the case, John and Kentucky are not the place for you because he wonâ€™t play favorites.
â€œSome talented guys want to play a lot and score, but they do not want to challenged in practice and play against great players daily because they donâ€™t have the confidence to do it. Super confident and super talented players are guys he targets. He wants guys that embrace talent around them, but do not run away from competing with that talent daily.â€
Noel would seem to be a likely replacement for Davis, the nationâ€™s top shot blocker. Some even suggest heâ€™s a better high school shot blocker than Davis was â€” something Iâ€™ll still have to see to believe. Muhammad could be next yearâ€™s Kidd-Gilchrist with a tad more emphasis on offense and not quite the overall motor â€” but then again no player in the country this year had Kidd-Gilchristâ€™s overall intensity.
Biancardi says if UKâ€ˆcould only get one of the two,â€ˆNoel would be the bigger catch.
â€œNoel is important because he brings what nobody else can do. Heâ€™s a freshman that can protect the basket, block shots, alter shots, get you out running on the break and can score inside a little bit,â€ Biancardi said. â€œHe is unique in that respect. He is the guy that not a lot of programs ever have.
â€œThatâ€™s not to say Muhammad or (Anthony) Bennett (another top prospect committing Wednesday) cannot do it. They are both really good and very big piece. Kind of like Kidd-Gilchrist with Davis. Kentucky could not have done it without Davis, but they needed Kidd-Gilchrist.â€
A year ago Biancardi accurately predicted that Calipariâ€™s incoming recruiting class was not only talented, but special because of its emphasis on winning and unselfish play. He was among the first to predict that a national championship run would not surprise him because of the freshmenâ€™s willingness to sacrifice â€” and he was right.
â€œThat 2011 class had winning resumes. I said I normally donâ€™t make predictions, but I went out on a limb and said that was Calipariâ€™s best class in terms of winning a championship,â€ Biancardi said.
He did, and was right.
â€œWith that said, this year they also had a very good senior in Darius Miller and two really special sophomores in Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb,â€ Biancardi said. â€œNext year they really wonâ€™t have anybody for the freshmen to look to. Theyâ€™ll have Kyle Wiltjer, who played sparingly, and Ryan Harrow, who has never played at UK after transferring from North Carolina State.
â€œI donâ€™t want to dampen expectation, but itâ€™s hard to expect that same kind of greatness out of what likely will be Calâ€™s youngest roster. That first year he had Patrick Patterson with experience. The second year he had Miller and Deandre Liggins, a good role player. This year he had Miller, and even (Eloy) Vargas), along with two very talented sophomores. Thereâ€™s not anything like that next year if everybody saying they could go to the NBA actually goes.â€
Biancardi says signee Willie Cauley â€œneeds time to develop and could be specialâ€ in the middle, but since he has also played football heâ€™ll need time for Calipari to develop and likely will make his biggest jump from his freshmen to sophomore season. He says UKâ€™s other two signees, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, are â€œbig-time payers who can both step in and play immediatelyâ€ for Calipari.
But will Calipari add Muhammad or Noel? Or at least Bennett? Or could he get two, or even all three?
â€œYou have got to believe based on his track record, heâ€™s in position to get someone at least. Which one or ones,â€ˆI have no idea. But I just have a hard time believing heâ€™ll come up empty based on what heâ€™s done the last three years in terms of winning and get guys ready for the â€ˆNBA,â€ Biancardi said.