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John Calipari

Dakari Johnson photo by  Victoria Graff.

Dakari Johnson photo by Victoria Graff.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Freshman center Dakari Johnson will return to the Kentucky men’s basketball program for the 2014-15 season, he announced Wednesday.

“After looking at the information provided to me by Coach Cal and the NBA committee, my family and I made the decision for me to return to UK for my sophomore year,” Johnson said. “Returning to school allows me to build on my leadership skills, improve my individual basketball strength and conditioning skills, and have another opportunity to accomplish one of my individual goals: winning an NCAA national championship in college.”

The 7-foot center started 18 of Kentucky’s last 20 games, averaging 5.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game during that stretch. Johnson tallied nine points and a career-high 11 rebounds in UK’s postseason-opening win over LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

“I’m happy to have Dakari back with us for next season,” head coach John Calipari said. “Despite being the youngest player on the team this season, he continued to improve every day on the court and it showed. We look forward to seeing his improvement over the summer and throughout next year.”

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native grabbed six or more rebounds four times during UK’s postseason run, while shooting better than 62 percent from the field during the NCAA Tournament.

Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress and fellow freshman Marcus Lee have already announced their intentions to return for the 2014-15 season.

By LARRY VAUGHT

There have been times that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has had a few shots for Southeastern Conference football. However, he had no trouble putting on a Kentucky pullover Wednesday while watching his brother’s team at UK practice.

“No, he was cold,” UK coach Mark Stoops told reporters. “They like to support us. He’s proud to wear it. I’m sure he’ll take that home with him.”

His brother, Mike, the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, was also present for practice. The only brother missing was Ron, an assistant coach at Youngstown State.

The UK coach wanted his brothers to offer advice — and they even did during practice. More was expected to follow in the film room.

“That’s what there here for. I mean, they’re not here just for fun. We’ve got to put them to work,” Mark Stoops said. “So, absolutely that’s what we constantly do. We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment.

“So it’s good to have them here. I’m definitely going to utilize them while they’re here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done.”

Stoops’ brothers were not the only coaches at practice. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who knows Bob Stoops, also stopped by.

“He had some time this morning to come out and say hi and see my brothers and stop in and see a little bit of practice,” Mark Stoops said. “It was good to see him out here.”

Florida center Patric Young (4) goes to the basket but is blocked by Kentucky forward Alex Poythress (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Florida center Patric Young (4) goes to the basket but is blocked by Kentucky forward Alex Poythress (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Sophomore forward Alex Poythress will return to the Kentucky men’s basketball program for the 2014-15 season, he announced Wednesday.

“Playing in the NBA has always been a dream of mine, but I want to make sure that I’m NBA-ready before I make that jump,” Poythress said. “By coming back, I’ll be so much closer to earning my degree in business and it will give me another year to prepare my game and my body for the next level.”

The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in helping lead the Wildcats to the NCAA title game. He shot better than 68 percent from the field in the NCAA Tournament, including an eight-point, seven-rebound performance in the Final Four against Wisconsin.

“I’m excited for Alex and the decision he’s arrived at,” head coach John Calipari said. “I’m proud of the work he committed to this past season, on and off the floor, and think he’s ready to take that next step and lead this team next season.”

The Clarksville, Tenn., native tallied a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) in UK’s season-opener against UNC Asheville and pulled down 12 rebounds two games later against second-ranked Michigan State.

Fellow sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Marcus Lee announced their intentions to return for the 2014-15 season last week.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Julius Randle said in the preseason he wanted to work on his perimeter game and coach John Calipari vowed he would have him do that because it wasn’t just about winning for the team. However, as the season progressed, Randle was used almost exclusively in the low post — a move he said he understood and accepted.

“Coach Cal used me different ways but posting up was one of my strengths. Everybody had to sacrifice. Once we bought in and believed in our roles, that is why we made the postseason run,” Randle said Tuesday after announcing he was leaving UK for the NBA.

He said UK played the way it should have in the postseason when the “less is more” motto Calipari preached sunk in team-wide.

“I didn’t have to worry about doing anything crazy or scoring a lot of points. We had so much talent. That’s the way it should have been. The reason I came here was because I trusted his advice,” Randle said of Calipari’s tweaks late in the season.

He has yet to pick an agent and said “we will continue to pray about it” before deciding which agent is right.

“I am blessed to be in position to have a chance to get drafted,” Randle said. “I am pretty sure when I start the combine and workouts for individual teams, I will have better idea where I will go but I was confident enough now to enter the draft.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Julius Randle surprised no one today when he announced he was leaving Kentucky to put his name into the NBA draft where he’s expected to be among the top five picks in the June draft. Teammate James Young made the same decision last week.

“I have been blessed and fortunate to be in position to have decisions and big decision whether to declare for the draft or not. Talking with my family and a lot of prayer, I have decided to declare for the draft,” Randle said.

Randle averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds — both team highs — for Kentucky and had 24 double-doubles, tops in the nation. He was remarkably consistent in NCAA play — 10 points, six rebounds, four assists versus Connecticut; 16 points, five rebounds against Wisconsin; 16 points, 11 rebounds against Michigan; 15 points, 12 rebounds against Louisville; 13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists against Wichita State; and 19 points and 15 rebounds against Kansas State.

He was named the SEC Freshman of the Year as well as an overall first-team all-SEC pick. He also made several all-American teams.

Here is how NBAdraft.net evaluates Randle’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Very strong upper body and a reliable left hand … He shows a strong motor, and finishes well around the rim with contact … He is very skilled with his face up game and has shown some creative finishing ability … Though he lacks elite explosiveness, he is able to use his strong frame to protect the ball and avoid blocks … On the offensive boards he is an absolute beast, relentless in seeking out rebounds … The same thing is true on the defensive end where he has natural instincts for rebounds … He uses his strong body to not allow taller opponents to get close to the rim … He doesn’t have the quickest feet in the world, but definitely really good for a big, very balanced … Randle is a mix of power, skills and balance that makes him a very interesting prospect … Despite being just a freshman he could have an immediate impact in the NBA due to his strength and offensive skills.

Weaknesses: Despite all the good things mentioned about his game there are a lot of concerns about Randle … It’s been noted that Randle is undersized for the PF position, lacking ideal length with a sub 7 foot wingspan … He may struggle to create looks against stronger, more athletic and taller opponents in the post … Offensively his numbers on synergy indicate how difficult it has been for him to score on post moves with very low percentages on each low post block and over either shoulder … It also doesn’t help matters that he is not able to utilize his right hand … Very few, even highly talented, players are able to play at high level without being able to finish and make moves with both hands, as the book becomes well known and everyone overplays their strength. … His shooting isn’t consistent and despite good mechanics, his percentages are low and 3-poin range is non-existent … He will have to develop a consistent solid jumpshot to replicate the success of Zach Randolph and Michael Beasley when facing the basket … Overall his game right now is based almost entirely on overpowering weaker opponents … He is very skilled but it will be hard to find the same success overpowering post players in the league. Also it is worth considering that most of Randle’s game is below the rim … His future will likely hinge more heavily than most prospects on landing in the right system, where a team has a vision of how to utilize him and makes sure he stays focused and works hard on the right skill development.

 

Julius Randle will hold a press conference at 1:30 April 22. This livestream is courtesy Kentucky Wildcats TV.

Vaught’s note: Kentucky fan Kelly Harper was among those at coach John Calipari’s book signing in northern Kentucky and shared these insights on what the night was like. Enjoy.

By KELLY HARPER

Who could bring over 500 people to a book signing in Northern Kentucky on a Monday night? Only Coach John Calipari. The Big Blue Nation was abuzz at Joseph Beth Booksellers waiting for the arrival of Coach Cal for a book signing of his new book Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out.

Northern Kentucky showed Cal that its just as crazy about the Cats as other parts of the Commonwealth. Fans from all ages packed the bookstore and caused traffic jams outside for the chance to hear our coach speak about the program, the players and his new book. Even his delay from a recruiting trip to Chicago didn’t dampen the mood.

As Coach Cal entered, he was greeted by a local high school band’s rendition of the UK Fight Song, he greets toe crowd with his immortal phase “You people are crazy.” Northern Kentucky fans couldn’t have been happier in the acknowledgement or our love and devotion to a university over an hour away.

Coach Calipari spent about 10 to 15 minutes talking and answering questions from the audience. He overviewed the foundation of his new book focusing on servant leadership. He talked about working with talented “young stars” that you are trying to focus on others rather than themselves. One of the best stories of the night was that of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s unselfish attitude before the Vandy game in 2012 asking Coach Cal to put in Darius Miller over himself. He saw Darius struggling and thought giving him the chance could help him overcome. Cal then went on to say, “Would you tell your boss to let you step back and put someone else in your place because that person was struggling?”

Coach Cal also addressed the recent years and the paradigm shift that the Big Blue Nation has had to face with the “One and done” era. He reminded us that his words from the beginning focused on players; “I coach for the names on the backs of the jerseys — not just the front.”

His role is for Kentucky’s program to have an impact on families helping many out of generational poverty. In the end, these players will have an impact on the overall program. In 50 years, the University of Kentucky will still be here and many won’t remember the decision that these students made for not only themselves but also their futures. Kentucky’s program is creating more millionaires than many Wall Street firms.

A few notes closer to home and on the minds of the BBN focused on questions from the audience.

— Cal feels the class of 2014 is complete.

— His son Brad is doing well from his injury and has about three more months of recovery. Father and son were on the court practicing last night.

— Cal will have hip replacement surgery on May 2.

—He met on Monday with Dakari and Alex and will meet Tuesday with the Twins. He didn’t share anything on those discussions. But if I had to guess, Cal told them “do what’s right for your family.”

— In the end the best question of the night came from a little boy in the audience. He asked Cal the question we all want to know “Do you like pasta?” Cal answered, “Can’t you tell.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

It’s nice to see that John Wall still thinks so much of his college coach, John Calipari. And also nice to see that he obviously believes he knows where Calipari’s heart remains.

USA Today Sports asked Wall after Washington beat Chicago in the NBA playoffs Sunday if Calipari should return to the NBA as a head coach.

“I think he’d be a great NBA coach,” Wall said. “But he loves Kentucky too much. The Big Blue Nation loves him back. … It’s kind of different (in the NBA) though. The NBA guys are going to do what they do they’re playing for checks and stuff like that. He’s great at getting young guys to buy in.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Even though there is still no official word from Kentucky, Pittsburgh has announced that assistant coach Barry Rohrssen is leaving to join John Calipari’s staff at UK and fill the vacancy created when Orlando Antigua left to become head coach at South Florida.

The move has been rumored since Antigua’s departure even though Calipari has continually denied that Rohrssen was No. 1 on his list.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon told Paul Zeise of the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette that Rohrssen was offered a raise to stay at Pitt and that he will be missed.

“I am happy for him as he is to the point in his career and his life now that he is getting married and presumably gonna start a family that he felt like he needed to take this opportunity in order to get where he wants to be in his career. Barry has been a great asset to Pitt, he has done a great job and I wish him nothing but the best but we will move on and we will start the process of replacing him now,” Dixon told Zeise.

Rohrssen returned to Pitt lafter a stint as an assistant coach for the Idaho Stampede (NBDL). He’d worked at Pitt from 1999-2006 then became the head coach at Manhattan before he lost his job after the 2011 season.

Rohrssen and Calipari have been friends and he will give UK the proven recruiter it lost with Antigua.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Don’t expect a decision quickly from guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison about the NBA draft. The Kentucky freshmen have until Sunday to declare for the draft or stay at UK and based on what their father told Houston’s Fox 26, it looks like a decision is several days away.

Aaron Harrison Sr. said the family is “probably midway” through the evaluation process and is still waiting official word from the NBA on the guards’ evaluations. Some mock drafts have both players projected as late first-round picks, some mock drafts have both going in the second round where there are no guaranteed contracts.

“I talked to a gentleman at the NBA and he said he would get it (the paperwork on the evaluations) to me as fast as possible and then we’ll go from there,” said Aaron Harrison Sr. “It’s important. You’re trying to find out what the prospects are for them and where they’ll be drafted and all those things.”

Sporting News’ mock draft has Andrew Harrison No. 21 pick and Aaron Harrison No. 25. Ed Isaacson of NBADraftblog.com also said he would put both in the first round.

Aaron Harrison Sr. told Fox 26 that his sons are not leaning either way. The twins told the station that they are thinking about “all the angles” and that the decision was tough on them and their family.

If both Andrew and Aaron Harrison return, the Wildcats will be a legitimate national title contender again — and perhaps the No. 1 team going into next season. Kentucky would have the Harrisons, Wilie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis definitely returning along with incoming freshmen Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. With Alex Poythress also likely returning and possibly Dakari Johnson as well, that’s another talented roster for coach John Calipari with depth and experience.

On top of that you add talented freshmen in pure point guard Tyler Ulis, skilled low-post scorer Karl Towns Jr., big-time jump-shooter Devin Booker and versatile power forward Trey Lyles. You’ve got a deep, talented and mature roster that actually has what it’s been missing in a locker room voice.

If the Harrisons continue to play the way they did in the postseason and can improve with a push from Ulis and Booker daily, UK could be a much better team next year than this season’s team that make the national title game.

If the Harrisons don’t return, the Hawkin-Ulis combination will be solid at point guard because Ulis has great court sense and is special at the game’s intangibles. Booker is also a knockdown shooter, much like former Cat Doron Lamb.

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