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Here is the statement from Makini Campbell, Dakari Johnson’s mother, about his decision to return to Kentucky for his sophomore season rather than putting his name into the NBA draft:

“I just wanted to take some time to reflect, share, and thank the Big Blue Nation and the coaching staff for a great year of basketball through the ups and downs. Hands down we had a blast! I am so proud of Dakari and the University of Kentucky basketball program on their achievements this year. I had the opportunity to see my son grow as an individual and become the leader that I knew him to be.

“I appreciate the space, patience and respect shown to my family during this important time. What a blessing to have an opportunity to choose. When making a decision (we have made many) we try to look at the whole picture (advantages and disadvantages). I must truly admit when going through the process we saw both sides of the coin as a win-win.

“I must say that in making his decision, Dakari wasn’t worried about any other player coming back/or in. I think what he learned this year — regardless of a loaded talented team – is that each player brings something unique to the group that attributed to the March run.

“I’ve always been aware of his goal to win a national championship in high school, college, and the NBA. For him to confidently state what he did after his national high school championship game and make it to the finals in his freshman year of college was prosperous within itself. All of this while successfully working on his degree and enjoying college life whenever he could.

“I respect each of the young men having to make this decision. Congrats to Julius Randle and James Young for making their dream reality; I wish them all the best. I’m excited about the upcoming season and what lies ahead for this group.”

#StriveforNine

 

 

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.

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

As Kentucky freshman Dakari Johnson continues to contemplate whether he should return to UK for his sophomore season or put his name into the NBA draft in hopes of being a first-round pick in June, remember that no player probably enjoyed the Wildcats’ season more than him.

Johnson knew plenty about Kentucky basketball. He lived in Lexington and played middle school basketball at Sayre and his former high school teammate was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the stars on UK’s 2012 national championship team.

He patiently worked his way into Kentucky’s starting lineup and his personality/enthusiam often helped the Wildcats at the most opportune time. While the pressure of playing at UK seemed to burden some teammates, Johnson embraced the limelight and his smile was infectious — and a favorite for UK fans.

That’s why it was no surprise that he had a message for Kentucky fans earlier this month after UK lost 60-54 to Connecticut in the national championship game.

“We proved a lot of people wrong. We had a great season other than this last game. We just had a tremendous season and shouldn’t feel down,” said Johnson. “I just want to say thanks to the fans for sticking with us even when we were not playing the way we should have been playing. They stuck with us and I thank them for that. I know I’ll never forget that.”

It was right after that when Johnson said he didn’t even want to think about next year or what he might do, which was exactly what he should have been saying minutes after the national championship game ended. But when he had an opportunity to say he did plan to be back, Johnson also said he was not ready to make that claim, either.

As I looked back over some of Johnson’s other comments, it was clear that he cherished what UK had done — but it might also have sounded like a player who knew it might be in his best interests to leave.

“It hurts. We made it this far. It hurts. That’s all I can say. You don’t get chances like this all the time,” Johnson said. “I will probably always rememer the run we made. We proved a lot of people wrong. We had a tremendous season. This month was fun. We had fun but it is tough right now to get over this loss.

“We have a team that fights, so I knew we could come back (against Connecticut). Losing hurts but it doesn’t take away from the season. Cal (John Calipari) told us there was no reason to be down and we have to believe him and move on. We’ll always be able to talk about the great run we had no matter what we all decide to do.”

But what will Johnson do? If he returns, he’ll compete with Willie Cauley-Stein again for playing time. An improved Marcus Lee will be in the mix for playing time, too. Then there is incoming 7-footer Karl Towns. If he goes to the NBA, he’ll have to improve his defense dramatically since he’s not a high riser and rim protector like Cauley-Stein and Lee.

Those are the issues Johnson is facing and Sunday’s deadline looms for players to either opt for the NBA or stay in school — and if Johnson does return, the memories of he has of the postseason run along with the good feelings generated by UK fans could be the reasons that help persuade him to stay at UK.

By LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON — Teammate James Young has opted to leave UK just as Julius Randle announced he would on Tuesday. Two other teammates, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee, have announced they will return. Randle said he had no idea what twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison would do about returning for their sophomore seasons or going into the draft.

“I can’t really speak for them. I have not given them any advice or anything,” Randle said Tuesday. “We are just talking about normal teenage things. I am pretty sure they will make the best decision for them. But whether they will go or declare, I can’t speak on that.”

However, he did says he expects UK to have an “amazing team” next year.

“We have so much talent,” Randle said. “Willie coming back, Marcus was huge in the (NCAA) tournament. So much talent coming in next year. They will definitely make another run. Coach Cal will do a great job of developing players.”

Calipari eventually did that last season even though UK finished 29-11, not exactly what was expected when the Cats started the year ranked No. 1 and openly talked of going 40-0. Regular-season losses created mounting criticism for the players and coach before UK caught fire in postseason play.

Randle said he dealt with the criticism because he never “fed to, read anything or believed anything” about the preseason hype. Instead, he stayed in his “own little circle” and stayed focused on improving.

“It was an experience I will never forget. All the adversity we went through all year and to finally have the opportunity to play for a national championship and see how we came together during the postseason run I will never forget. I will grow old one da yand tell my children or grandchildren what I did when I was 19 years old. It will always be a memory for me,” Randle said.

Randle said “some was fair, some was not fair” about the criticism during the year.

“But at the end of the day it never shook us up. We stayed together and showed how tough minded we are,” Randle said. “Lot of day I would go into practice or a game not feeling well, but I would look at those guys and know what they been through and that just gives you motivation.”

He said the daily challenges made him a better player and person.

“Each day you have to take things one day at a time. You are definitely going to face adversity in life whether it is basketball or not. Facing all that doubt and criticism taught me how to deal with things and I can apply it to life as well,” he said.

 

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.”

Vaught’s note: Steve Vance is a long time UK basketball fan who occasionally provides commentary on UK basketball. Today he shares his thoughts on the one-and-done — and assumes that Julius Randle will declare for the NBA in a few hours at his press conference — and even has a humorous reference to Hayden “Sidd” Finch. Enjoy.

By STEVE VANCE

Coach John Calipari has said it numerous times since becoming head men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, “It’s not my rule. It’s the NBA’s rule. If it was up to me, I’d have a player stay two years.” Of course, Coach Cal is talking about the National Basketball Association’s initial player eligibility rule, more commonly known to NCAA college basketball fans and sports reporters alike as the “one and done” rule. That being said, no college basketball coach has more successfully utilized the NBA’s eligibility rule to recruit and develop a top performing college basketball team than John Calipari himself has done at the University of Kentucky. Three Final Fours, a National Title, and a runner-up during his brief five year leadership of the Wildcats, all speak to the talent level Calipari has been able to bring to Lexington by embracing the minimum of one year of college eligibility required by the NBA.

In his tenure at UK, a total of 12 John Calipari recruited athletes have shined as UK freshmen and, by virtue of the one year eligibility rule, then taken their tremendous basketball talents directly to the NBA the following year. DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, Brandon Knight, Marcus Teague, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, and most recently, James Young and Julius Randle have all succeeded at UK then proceeded to the professional ranks after one season at the University of Kentucky. Imagining an NBA rule change that would require a player of comparable talents to remain at UK for a second year of play makes the Big Blue Nation almost giddy with excitement and inspires dreams of NCAA Championships to come.

And yet, for all the talk about the NBA taking action to change its player eligibility ruling to either require two years of college or be at least 21 years of age (effectively eliminating the so called “one and done” rule), The reality is that the NCAA has always had the power to negate the NBA eligibility ruling, revolutionize college basketball, and bring more parity to the college landscape as a whole; they’ve just been too contrary to do it.

It all has to do with how the NCAA defines eligibility as it relates to the NBA draft.

The NCAA Division 1 Manual, the guide for intercollegiate athletics states in Section 12.1.12 “An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual: (f ) After initial full-time collegiate enrollment, enters into a professional draft .” Very simply put, if a player declares for the NBA draft – they’re done – kaput – finished – no more college eligibility. Their college playing days are over – regardless of the drafts outcome, regardless if it proved a wise decision or not. In the NCAA’s mind, this restrictive rule serves to create a climate of fear that somehow will compel a college athlete to remain in school for a longer period of time, rather than risk a premature jump to the NBA.

The question is “why”?

Why is it necessary for a player to lose his remaining college eligibility to play additional years simply by allowing his name to be placed into the NBA draft? Why not allow every college player to place his name into the NBA draft as often as he wants to, and then simply decide after the draft whether he wants to remain in college or take the money and jump to the professional ranks? If the NBA draft is simply viewed as a potential job offer, why not allow a college player to participate in the draft, determine the quality of the job offer, and then either accept it or reject it and then return to college?

The reason “why not” has a lot to do with the control of power and wealth. The NCAA leadership views itself as the righteous defender of amateur athleticism while wielding an iron-fisted monopoly of self-serving rules that would make any tyrant proud. If Coach Cal advocates a “players first” approach, the NCAA advocates a “players last” approach in its rule making. Yet, a simple change to eligibility as it relates to the draft could change it all – for the better of the players, the Universities, the fans, and the NCAA.

Think about the case of fictional NCAA player Hayden Finch. The lanky 7’2” center, starts for the Northwest Southeastern State University Tadpoles and has set a new NCAA Division 1 shot blocking record. However, he struggles offensively, and weighs only 175 pounds. Under the proposed NCAA rule change, Finch could place his name into the NBA draft and wait and see the draft results before deciding to forego his college eligibility and become a professional. On draft night, Finch might go as a lottery pick, for which he thanks his missionary parents, a Tibetan monk, and his college coach, while becoming a guaranteed contract multi-millionaire. On the other hand, Finch is picked late in the second round by the Sioux City Scooters, who follow-up with a non-guaranteed contract of $120,000, and a big qualifier of “IF Finch makes the team”. In this latter scenario, Hayden could simply say “no thanks” to the NBA offer and return to school to work on his game and help the Tadpoles continue their journey towards an NCAA title run. Finch is happy, the University is happy, the fans are happy, and even the NCAA might crack a smile with the prospect of a talented player returning to college without their threat of lost eligibility as coercion.

To be certain, there would need to be a few companion NCAA rule changes to make the new draft eligibility rule work effectively. First, following the draft, a player would need to make his intentions known to return for additional college eligibility within a 30 day or so period of the draft’s conclusion – roughly by August 1st of each year. Second, NCAA National Letters of Intent would have a non-binding status until that same exact post draft decision date; giving recruited players the option to look at other schools should they suddenly find their position crowded by a returning draftee. Incidentally, it’s this second point that would create more parity in the college game. Let’s revisit our fictional player to see how.

With Hayden Finch returning for another year of college play, the NWSE State Tadpoles suddenly find that they have one too few scholarships. Their planned replacement recruit for Sid, foreign youth athletic club player, Tahl Projecht, cannot sign a binding intent letter with NWSE State because the school does not have an available scholarship due to Finch’s decision to return to school based on his low draft position and poor man’s employment offer. As a result, Tahl Projecht signs with another NCAA school, in effect spreading the incoming talent wealth around the college game and creating more parity as more kids sticking around at a top school, means more available players for other schools. It slows the play and leave process down, resulting in more talented players remaining in college over all.

For top high school players, having to wait to finalize a commitment to a school until after the NBA draft would create some tension but probably no more so than when a current player who is expected to go to the draft now, such as Willie Cauley-Stein, elects to stay in school. Thus, top High School prospects might choose to simply make verbal commitments pending the draft results and which college players are choosing to return to school. While it could result in a few last minute scrambles, all of the top players have been recruited by multiple schools and know their options well. It really shouldn’t be an issue, and the option of being able to explore the draft at any time is a great benefit to an incoming player. Plus, it would spread the wealth of talent over more college programs, rather than the handful of elites, something all the NCAA member schools would like to see happen.

The NBA would also likely respond to this action by the NCAA. While the top college talents, regardless of class, would expect to retain a high first round draft position, an NBA team would not want to risk a low first round draft pick on a player who might opt to return to college. They would likely pass over the marginal prospect or not yet fully NBA ready talent for the more certain signing of a proven upperclassman. This also lowers the financial risk of the NBA teams, reducing their investment in marginal players who never develop NBA skills. It would also likely improve the quality of the NBA game as more immediately ready skilled players join the league.

Even if the NBA does revise their eligibility rules to require two years of college eligibility, the NCAA would still benefit by eliminating the “draft ineligibility rule” and giving the players the freedom to return to school after the draft. Quite frankly, with all the negative publicity the NCAA has received over the perceived financial inequities between the players and the institution, a player-first initiative like this proposed rule change would go a long way in helping their case in the court of public opinion.

For the University of Kentucky, this proposed rule change would likely slow down the progression of new players coming in, as more current players return for another year of improvement in the hope of improving their NBA stock, however, this would allow the current Wildcat team to develop more effectively with some talented upper classmen to support the uber-talented freshmen – much like Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb did with the 2012 Championship team. That’s a thought every UK fan salivates about, even while they agonize over the thought that Coach Cal might not have enough scholarships to sign every top high school recruit should this proposed change be adopted by the NCAA.

If the NCAA would eliminate the archaic penalty of ineligibility as a result of entering the draft, far more good college players, but not yet NBA ready players, would remain in college to hone their skills, get their degree, and to the NCAA’s benefit – raise the overall quality of college play as less underclassmen would be likely to feel pressured by an “all or nothing” NBA draft decision as they currently face. In all, it’s time for the NCAA to stop treating players with fear and intimidation and partner with these young athletes to help them succeed and then proceed with a career well suited to their skills; treating them with the equality that every other scholarship student is treated.

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.”

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