By LARRY VAUGHT
Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, was on a radio show last week when he was asked whether he thought guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison would return to Kentucky for their sophomore season — as they announced they would do Friday rather than enter the NBA draft.
“I had no knowledge, but I said I thought they’d stay. That they did didn’t surprise me. I think it was an intelligent decision. They began to come into their own in March. Why not give NBA scouts another season’s worth of evaluation?” said Dortch. “Kentucky has to be considered a heavy favorite to win the national 2014-15 national championship now.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas thinks the return of the Harrisons along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee off the team that reached the national title game will put UK No. 1 again going into next season as well.
“Kentucky looks like a preseason No. 1 to me. With depth, size, talent, and now experience, Kentucky stacks up favorably with anyone,” Bilas said.
Another ESPN analyst, Dick Vitale, already has Kentucky No. 1 in his preseason poll — and that was before he knew the Harrisons were returning. Vitale thought with UK’s incoming recruits along with Poythress, Lee, Johnson and Cauley-Stein back, UK already merited being No. 1 going into next season.
“I just feel with the personnel they have and the experience they have that they will have a dynamite team, much better than last year,” Vitale said.
He knows Kentucky fans might immediately translate that to mean he’s predicting a national championship for UK again like the Cats won in 2012. But he knows better than that despite UK’s impressive tournament run last season.
“Does all this guarantee Kentucky will win a championship? No,” Vitale said. “If it was four of seven (series), nobody would beat Kentucky. But in a one-game scenario, with the way momentum can swing and the 3-point shot, they could get beat. I would caution all Kentucky fans about that.
“Big Blue Nation has every right to be excited and enthused. On paper, they probably have the best team ever assembled. But you still have got to perform and remember the system exists. One bad night and the party could be over. Even as good as Kentucky will be, they are not lock city to cut the nets down (after winning the national championship). But they certainly have a great, great chance.”
Such a great chance that even if UK fans don’t make the mistake of starting the 40-0 hype again for next season, they are giddy thinking about what the year could be like even with a schedule that could include Louisville, UCLA, Kansas, Providence, North Carolina, Florida and others.
That’s why Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy doesn’t see the Cats dropping out of the national news that they have dominated for the last month any time soon.
“The twins coming back just escalates the excitement and buzz about Kentucky basketball,” DeCourcy said. “There is such great excitement about having that much talent on one team. Remember (19)96 and what it was like going into that season (with the talent coach Rick Pitino’s eventual national championship UK team had). It was extraordinary and my guess is that it will be just like that for this team and next season.”
And that is one thing even Vitale would guarantee when it comes to Kentucky basketball.