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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
Can Kentucky’s historic recruiting class get even better? Kentucky fans and coach John Calipari will find out Tuesday when Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top prospect, announces his college choice.
He’s down to Kentucky, Florida State, Kansas and North Carolina and Huntington (W.Va.) Prep coach Rob Fulford confirmed on Twitter Sunday that Wiggins would “sign Tuesday at around 12:15. He will not hold a press conference type ceremony. Just classmates, family and friends.”It’s no surprise that Wiggins, who many already expect to be the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft, is not making his decision on ESPN or having a setting where fans and media members could converge on him. Instead, only one local reporter will be in attendance to see which team Wiggins picks.If it is UK, the talk about a national championship and unbeaten season will only escalate. Kentucky has already signed McDonald’s All-Americans Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson along with in-state players Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins. Add returning players Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson and Calipari will have more depth than in any previous year at Kentucky as well as the all-time No. 1 recruiting class.
Wiggins has kept a low profile throughout the recruiting process and has never told coaches, teammates or friends where he would go to school. His parents attended Florida State, and Huntington Prep and teammate Xavier Rathan-Mayes signed with the Seminoles.
Kansas has a solid five-member recruiting class that features 7-footer Joel Embiid and perimeter players Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene.
P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo decided to continue their careers at North Carolina and signees include forward Isaiah Hicks and center Kennedy Meeks. Wiggins would boost North Carolina into a top five recruiting class.
So what will Wiggins do?
The guess here remains that he picks UK. It gives him the best chance to win a national title in his one year in college. I also don’t buy the theory that he’ll be overwhelmed by the spotlight at Kentucky because he’s been in the spotlight for years. That won’t change at North Carolina, Kansas or Florida State, so why not join Calipari’s class, win a title and become another No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
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.
Quotes from the Nike Hoop Summit.
Andrew Harrison (Travis H.S./Richmond, Texas)
On the outcome of the game:
It was a disappointing outcome, but it’s still an honor to play for your country, and being known as one of the top players in the country. We all had a good time here. We’ve been playing against each other since we were in third grade, so it was great to play with them. The outcome was disappointing, but we had fun.
On the team’s defense:
We didn’t play as well on defense as we should have, but that comes with practice. We only had two days to prepare. That’s not an excuse. We definitely should have played better defense, but woulda, coulda, shoulda.
On Livio Jean-Charles:
He definitely killed us on the boards. He definitely showed who he was tonight. We struggled with him, but he’s a great player.
Andrew Wiggins (Huntington Prep, W.Va./Canada)
On the outcome of the game:
It was a blessing to be here. Coach enforced rebounding, and that’s what I think was the key to our victory. And also everyone was playing hard, and like coach said, we were unselfish the whole time, so we had great players that made different plays deep in the stretch.
On what it means to get two wins in a row in the Nike Hoop Summit:
It means a lot. First time it’s ever been done. Means even more because I have a Canadian coach that I’ve been with throughout three, four, five years. So it’s a special thing that we both can cherish, and again, blessed opportunity that we’re here and being able to play amongst the best.
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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s been away from home all but four days in the last three weeks, but future Kentucky Wildcat Andrew Harrison of Texas is not complaining.
“It’s fun getting to know people that you did not know that well,” said Harrison. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know guys that I have played against but never really got to spend time with.”
He’s in Portland, Ore., now along with his twin brother, Aaron, to play in Saturday night’s Nike Hoop Summit (7 p.m. on ESPN2). One teammate is UK signee Julius Randle while the World team includes Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s No. 1 player and still a UK recruiting target along with 2014 UK commit Karl Towns Jr.
“This game is more personal. We are not out to show what we can do. We are out to win,” Harrison, the nation’s top ranked high school point guard, said.
He’s already played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic — so did Randle, Wiggins and Aaron Harrison. He knew what to expect in those games, something he’s not sure about for Saturday’s game.
“In the first two games, everybody is just trying to show their stuff. I just tried to get everybody involved and didn’t worry about points or who was MVP,” Harrison said during a telephone interview after Thursday’s practice. “I have no idea how good the competition will be in this game. I know they have at least three really good players. I know it will be a really tough game, and a game everybody wants to win because you are playing for your country.”
Harrison participated in the 2012 USA under 18 national team training camp at Colorado Springs, Colo. However, he says playing in the Olympics has not been a life-long dream for him like it has some players.
“If God blessed me with that, I would be happy. But I know I have a lot of work to do before I could even think of that happening,” Harrison said. “That’s why the Olympics has not been a goal or dream. I know how hard it is to make that come true and how few players get to do something like that.”
He’s not really been able to work on improving his game since his team won the Texas state championship.
“In these games, you just have fun and don’t get to really work on parts of your game,” Harrison said. “Everybody already knows what kind of player you are, so you really don’t have a chance to get better. It’s more about who can dunk the best and stuff like that. By next year, I look forward to getting better. That’s when I can really put in the work.”
He knows Kentucky, which will add six McDonald’s All-Americans to four experienced returning players (Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kyle Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson), will give him a chance to showcase his point guard skills next year.
“I don’t care about scoring. I just want to lead my team. I want to win every game,” he said. “I will get a chance to just throw it up the rim sometimes and see who can go get it. I just have to put them in the right positions to score and I am looking forward to that. In high school, they could play four guys on you. Now you can’t leave anybody or they will kill you because we have so many good players.”
Harrison’s three-week tour from Chicago to Brooklyn to Portland has had one constant — UK fans at every stop.
“There have been some UK fans almost everywhere we have been,” he said. “I’m kind of getting use to what it will be like next year. But this whole experience has been great. We got to meet Spike Lee. He is wise and knowledgeable. It was really cool meeting him.”
He says he gets to talk to UK coach John Calipari or his staff “every once in a while” and they talk recruiting, leadership, defense and more. He has talked plenty to his future teammates the last three weeks.
“All the guys are cool. Getting to know them has definitely made me even more comfortable about next year,” Harrison said. “It was like a two-week head start on next season. We have not developed great chemistry yet, but we all like each other a lot and everything. We are cool.”
His only future plans before arriving in Lexington in early June will be to “spend all the time I can in the gym to improve” his overall play.
“That’s all I know how to do is get in the gym and work so I am not changing that now,” Harrison said.