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By LARRY VAUGHT
Even without Andrew Wiggins there still should not be any doubt that Kentucky has assembled the nation’s all-time best recruiting class.
Kentucky coach John Calipari still has a record six McDonald’s All-Americans — Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee — in this recruiting class. And don’t forget that junior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Alex Poythress were both McDonald’s All-Americans.
So there’s no shortage of talent for next year. Remember, sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is also being mentioned as a possible NBA draft lottery pick and freshmen Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis have unique talents of their own. Plus, with no Wiggins, it should clear the way for both Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood to stay on scholarship one more year.
“The immediate impact of Kentucky getting Wiggins is that this is without doubt the greatest recruiting class of all time,” said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy. “There’s no more room for argument about that.”
“Kentucky has got the No. 1 player (in the recruiting class) at every position on the floor except for Wiggins in a highly talented class,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “There are certain years you could get the No. 1 guys and still not have an extraordinary year like the 2008-09 group. But this is a very highly talented group. You could take Andrew Wiggins out of this class and put Jabari Parker or Julius Randle No. 1 and it would still be very strong. Kentucky will still have overwhelming strength and athleticism at every position. ”
And as I suggested about a month ago, Kentucky’s chemistry could be better without Wiggins. Not because Wiggins is a problem, but because even Calipari can only work so much magic with a loaded roster. He has guys that expect to play, and should play.
The Harrison twins and Randle are all dynamic, forceful leaders. Johnson, Lee and Young all seem to be team-oriented, not me-oriented, players.
Cauley-Stein will be a leader in a less intense way than the Harrisons or Randle. Poythress may not be a vocal leader, but he’ll be a better player. And Wiltjer’s experience on and off the court could be invaluable to the freshmen.
Wiggins would have been a terrific addition. But let Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch put this in perspective for UK fans. Here’s what he said when I asked him what impact not getting Wiggins would have on UK: “Zero. It’s still the best class of all time.”
And still likely more than enough to have UK ranked No. 1 going into next season — even without Wiggins.
By LARRY VAUGHT
As we get closer to the Andrew Wiggins’ decision, it reminded me of what Aaron Harrison had to say at the McDonald’s All-American Game about a month ago as he was asked about the possibility of the nation’s No. 1 recruit joining the Wildcats.
Question: How good a team would it be if Wiggins committed to Kentucky?
Harrison: “It would be an amazing team. He is one of the best athletes I have ever seen in my life. Put an athlete like him on the court and he would be great.”
Question: Have you tried to sell him on Kentucky this week?
Harrison: “No. I don’t try to do that. I did not like that when people tried to do that to me. He is a teenager just like I am. We hang out, listen to music, text.”
Question: Where do you predict he will go?
Harrison: “I have no idea.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
LSU-bound Jerrell Martin played with or against six future Kentucky Wildcats in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago and then went against two more — Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins — in the Derby Festival Classic in Louisville.
“Everybody impressed me,” said Martin, who had 20 points and five rebounds in the Louisville game. “Everybody could make a big push in college. They are all very good. I am really excited to play against them. I am glad they are over there. It will be tough games, but I can’t wait to see what happens.”
Jordan Mickey, another LSU signee, had a game-high nine rebounds and four blocked shots along with eight points in the Louisville game. Tennessee signee Robert Hubbs made three three-pointers and South Carolina pledge Sindarius Thornwell had 12 points off the bench.
“Kentucky isn’t the only school in the SEC with good players coming in. The SEC is going to be great and one of the strongest conferences around,” Martin said.
Willis certainly came away impressed with Martin.
“To be honest with you, I thought he was going to be more of a back to the basket post player, but he is really versatile. He is going to be real good for LSU, probably even better than I realized,” Willis said.
Still, UK has six McDonald’s All-Americans — Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Aaron Harrison — joining the program. That’s the most any school has ever added in one year.
“Yeah, that is pretty unfair. nobody has that,” Martin laughed and said.
How did he think UK pulled that off?
“Well, Kentucky is a good school. They have a lot of guys in the NBA and more on the way. I guess that is why they went there for that. They are just trying to get to the next level and they know the coaches at Kentucky are really good for doing that,” Martin said. “Calipari is a great coach overall. Anybody would probably want to play for him that wants to get to the NBA. That’s probably what sold all those guys on going there.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
NBADraftblog.com’s Ed Isaacson correctly predicted that two of Kentucky’s freshmen (Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel) would put their name into the NBA draft and two (Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress) would return to UK for their sophomore seasons.
Now he’s had a chance to watch Kentucky coach John Calipari’s next No. 1 recruiting class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans and he offers his insights on those players and their futures.
Question: Could you just give me your impressions of each future Wildcat?
Isaacson: “Julius Randle: Skilled with good size, he can create matchup problems in different spots on the court.
“Andrew Harrison: Love the size at the point guard position, let’s him see the court and options easily. Has shown comfort in both the halfcourt and transition, but he needs to make better decisions with the ball at the college level.
“Aaron Harrison: Though Andrew is known as the point guard and Aaron as the shooter, their games are very similar. Aaron has the ability to hit the open jumper, but has shown that he can create off the dribble and sees the floor well.
“James Young: Needs to get stronger, but likes to attack the basket and he is very good finishing around the basket.
“Dakari Johnson: A physical post player, he uses his body well to create space and looks to finish strong around the basket. Footwork still needs to improve, as well as understanding how to defend in the post.
“Marcus Lee: Athletic and raw. Needs to get stronger, but his leaping ability makes him a threat around the rim on both offense and defense.”
Question: Is it too early to for folks to be talking about Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle both being potential top 10 picks in 2014?
Isaacson: “Is it too early, absolutely, but that won’t stop it from happening. If both make the same progression their freshman year that they did during their high school years, it is a legitimate possibility.
Question: Are all six of these guys future NBA players?
Isaacson: “I will say all six have potential to be future NBA players, but if there is anything we have learned by now, is that you can’t tell how things will play out once they get to college.”
Saturday: More with Isaacson on which new player has the most untapped potential, how the super six can thrive on the same team and how Andrew Wiggins might fit at UK.
By LARRY VAUGHT
South Carolina basketball signee Sindarius Thornwell says there is no reason for him to fear Kentucky’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
“I have played against all of them. We are all cool. I am friends with all of them, but it is going to be fun playing against them all. I know what we can do and what they can do,” Thornwell said.
Who is the best incoming freshman at Kentucky?
“Julius (Randle). It is Julius. At 6-8, he can do anything besides shoot. He can’t shoot. We are going to zone when he gets the ball. But Julius is the best. He is too big. He is physical and can do a lot. He can be a beast,” Thornwell said.
What about the Harrison twins?
“I have not matched up with them that much, but they are pretty good. I like them. I am a fan of them. I love how they compete, but I will still go at them. We are friends off the court, but on the court they are my enemy,” Thornwell said. “It is crazy they are all going to Kentucky. I don’t know how that happened. Calipari and his staff do a good job recruiting, but this is just crazy.”
Thornwell, though, has no trouble using Kentucky to tout the incoming talent in the SEC after the conference went through a down season last year.
“All the other guys — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East — I been telling them that the SEC had the best recruiting class and told guys in the SEC we are coming at them and coming to beat them. We were at the bottom last year but we are going to work our way up and not back down from anybody, including Kentucky,” Thornwell said. “But the SEC overall, it’s going to be a lot better because of all the good players coming in. Kentucky has a lot, but they don’t have them all. The whole conference has good players on the way.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
The more international basketball he got, the better Julius Randle figured it made his overall game. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — both team highs — and shot 54 percent from the field in five games during the 2012 FIBA Americas Under 18 Championship to help Team USA win the gold medal in Brazil. He proved that was no fluke by scoring 19 points on 9-for-17 shooting, pulling down a team-high eight rebounds and blocking one shot for Team USA in a 112-98 loss to the World team in the Nike Hoop Summit April 20 in Portland.
“In international ball, the guys are big and stretch the floor with the way they shoot the ball,” said Randle, one of six McDonald’s All-Americans headed to Kentucky. “The international teams have players that can do a lot of things. Me playing against them shows me a lot of things. But no matter what, I always play to win. It is good, especially if you want to do something like play in the Olympics. It’s good to know how they play because what you see on TV is one thing but it is a different game playing against them. It won’t be like that at all in college. You see more international guys playing in the (United) States and they can play. So while I think playing these international games helps me, college and NBA are different games from the international game.”
Randle missed most of his senior season with a foot injury before returning in time to lead Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, to its third state title in four years. He played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and then was co-MVP in the Jordan Brand Classic.
“It was lot of hard work to get back here and I still have a long way to go. It has been an amazing experience and a great ending to my high school career. I could not ask for anything more,” Randle said. “I have signed with Kentucky, so all that stuff is settled. I am just happy to play basketball and focus on our team next year and helping us win. I was really honored when they asked me to play in the Nike Hoop Summit. I know all of the history of the players that have come through this game. It’s a huge honor for me.”
Randle knows the all-star games were also a chance for UK fans to get a look at him. ESPN has him ranked as the nation’s third best prep player, Scout.com has him No. 5 and Rivals.com has him No. 2
“It’s good for the fans to get a feel for how I play. Next year at Kentucky I am going to come hard. Just go out and play hard and help my team win,” Randle said. “But for our fans next year to get an early feel for how I play was great.”
He also got a chance to play with or against future UK teammates Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and James Young in the last few weeks.
“They are all great players and can all do a lot of great things on the floor. It kind of surprised me how good they all are. I can’t wait to play with all of them,” Randle said. “I know there is a lot of excitement building about our freshman class, but we are not paying attention to that. We know we still have to go in and win. That’s all we are going to focus on is winning. We all like to focus on team play and getting better.”
Sometimes you have to believe that other college basketball coaches wish that Kentucky’s John Calipari would just take a break from the recruiting trail. Instead, last season’s NIT fiasco seems to have inspired him even more.
Now Calipari is hot on the trail of five-star shooting guard Devon Booker, a 6-4 player from Moss Point High School in Mississippi — and that means UK assistant coach Kenny Payne’s Mississippi roots and ties could play a big part in this recruitment.
Booker is considered the third-best shooting guard in the nation by Scout.com and the 19th-best player in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. He already had offers from Michigan, North Carolina, Duke, Florida and Missouri before Calipari added a UK offer.
Booker seems to be Michigan’s No. 1 prospect in the 2014 class as coach John Beilein, fresh off his Final Four appearance, is watching him a lot. And Booker is originally from Grand Rapids, Mich. Beilein, as well as assistants Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, all watched Booker play last season.
Booker was Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and now Calipari has made UK’s interest official knowing that one or both Harrison twins could likely be one-and-done players and the Cats will need to restructure their backcourt in 2014-15.
Incoming Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison talks about the his experience at the Nike Hoops Summit, playing at Kentucky this fall, and his relationship with his twin brother.
Kentucky signee Julius Randle continued his impressive postseason play by scoring 19 points and grabbing a team-high eight rebounds for Team USA Saturday night in a 112-98 loss to the World team in the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland.
Another UK signee, guard Andrew Harrison, also had 19 points and five assists. Harrison’s brother, Aaron, another Kentucky signee, did not score in 12 minutes and was 0-for-3 from the field.
Kentucky 2014 commitment Karl Towns had seven points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench for the World team.
Andrew Wiggins, a Kentucky target, scored 17 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists for the World. Wiggins had 20 points in last year’s win in the same game.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Derek Willis went from a 6-9 rising star with outside shooting ability and ballhandling skills to a player some now consider a “throw-in” for UK’s recruiting class because his summer play before his senior season was not as good as some recruiting analysts expected.
“I played with a different summer team and for four weeks it was non-stop basketball. It wore me down. I don’t meant to make excuses, but I just never felt right,” Willis said.
Still, he estimates he’s asked “five or six times per day” about winning a national title at UK next year.
“Everybody talks about the recruiting class and winning No. 9 (national championship). I get a lot of stuff from Louisville fans wishing I had gone there. I am happy for them, but I am happy where I am,” Willis said.
He knows his future teammates will be, too, even though he thinks the six McDonald’s All-Americans really have no idea just how big Kentucky basketball is.
“I don’t think they really have a clue about what Kentucky basketball is all about,” Willis said. “They have visited here, but Dominique and I have grown up around it. You have to live here to know how the fans are for both teams (UK and Louisville) and how basketball is so big that you are treated like gods and expected to play that way.”