At the end of last season not many people knew what to make of how the college basketball season ended. UConn was hoisting another trophy after a surprising run and many of the favorites were stuck wondering what happened. And then something else unexpected happened involving one of the most storied programs, Kentucky. No, it wasn’t Julius Randle going pro. It wasn’t James Young deciding to take his talents to the NBA (for a near future of riding the pine on a horrible team in Boston – a la Archie Goodwin sort of). The one-and-dones (and others) decided to stay (aside from the two aforementioned players).
The twin backcourt pairing of Andrew and Aaron Harrison announced they were staying for another year. After a less than impressive season you might not think that was too much of a surprise. Andrew needed to sure up his jump-shot, along with his decision-making and motor on the defensive end. And brother Aaron needed to prove that his magical tourney run of big shot after big shot wasn’t just a fluke. But these two were rated within the top-two at their respected positions and both were top 6 overall in countless publications. Prior to their arrival in Lexington, the Harrisons were almost expected to be lottery picks when considering their NBA size, quickness, and poise. So what happened to all that athleticism in between high school and college? And why weren’t they as disruptive on the defensive end (a staple of John Calipari’s coaching methods)?
Another big name from the unprecedented recruiting class was 7-footer Dakari Johnson. A guy that reclassified up a grade to join the class of 2013, Johnson showed great skill and potential in the low-post while stealing minutes at the 5-spot from Willie Cauley-Stein before any injury was an issue. Sure, there’s plenty of things he still needs to learn and hone before he goes to the next level. But how many athletic, legit 7-footers with this kind of potential that play the true center position are there in the NBA right now? Maybe 5 or 6. That might even be a little generous.
Then there’s Marcus Lee, a guy with seemingly unlimited potential that didn’t have a chance to do much of anything until the Final Four because of all the depth in the Kentucky front LAST YEAR. He’s long, slender, and ultra-athletic. He can jump out of the gym and rebounds with great productivity. He, like Johnson, would have been a lottery pick in all likelihood had he made the decision to jump to the pros. So why come back to play behind a loaded team of guys that have NBA potential?
Moving on, we have Willie Cauley-Stein. A talented 7-1 glue-guy with potential for more that really hasn’t had the opportunity to show his full arsenal on such a deep roster. This guy was a highly-rated wide receiver on the football field, much like Lebron James, but still doesn’t have the kind of body that might have been helpful for such a sport (not that his height has left it as a realistic option). But Willie is now back as a junior. We know what he can do, and unless he adds another 30 pounds or so then it’s safe to say he won’t be developing the back-to-the-basket game of a Julius Randle. Still, he’s got the ability of a Tyson Chandler (with less natural range). So why didn’t he go pro?
And then there’s Alex Poythress. This guy was a top-10 player out of high school that was listed as a small forward with the mind of a power forward. His athleticism is off the charts, but his motor had been a question in the first two years and he hadn’t etched out a specific position yet. With all that said, Poythress is still an NBA prospect. He wouldn’t have been a first round pick and was really no threat to leaving early, but it’s not out of the question for Poythress to have been chosen as a project-pick in the second round.
So after a year when the draft was supposed to be perhaps the best ever (which is a joke because 2003 and 1984 were so far ahead), the draft of 2015 could possibly be better than 2014. And the talent from the new crop of freshmen has a little something to do with that. Kentucky might be a reason for that as well. It all starts with Karl Anthony-Towns who is a 7-foot tall athletic dynamo with three-point range. He’s projected as more of a 4-spot player with the skill-set of a LaMarcus Aldridge with a slightly higher ceiling. The kid can get up. And he’s unselfish, which is a pretty surprising theme thus far in this young season. Tyler Ulis is the smallest guy on the team and it’s not even close, but his game is plenty big. Ulis has great handles and can get into the paint well for a guy his size. Then there’s Devin Booker who could play the 3 but sets up as more of 2-guard for such a large team. He’s got great range and fluid shooting stroke. For this particular team, he doesn’t need to do much else. Trey Lyles is a guy that can guard the 3-spot but is naturally a more comfortable fit at the 4. He’s got a mature inside-outside game as well as a mature demeanor.
We aren’t even mentioning the other two guys on the bench, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, who have very real ability. There’s the argument that they could be starting for a large percentage of D-1 teams, but that’s just BBN (Big Blue Nation) supporters talking out of their asses. Willis is the better of the two and might be a better fit than Marcus Lee on the second platoon, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a high-major star (or at least not yet). Willis is more of a Darius Miller kind of guy in terms of his maturation. He will be very good by year 4, but he’s not amazing now and doesn’t need to be. Hawkins has the grit and confidence of a saavy vet, but his diminutive stature and athleticism (by comparison to other UK players) make it tough to find minutes. Last year, he found playing time as the backup combo guard taking away time from the Harrisons in various situations. Playing in Europe might be a real option for the kid.
With all the talent on this team you’d think they would be a shoe-in for a National Championship run, but there’s so much else that goes into things. Connecticut wouldn’t have made it past the round of 32 if it were all about talent last year. Intangibles play a big role in what makes a team really good. Maturity and intelligence on and off the court really define a group going forward. Kentucky had a tough first 30 minutes in their opener against Buffalo and many were quick to pass judgment. After watching the Wildcats beat a legit Kansas team by 32, it’s tough to argue with the D-2 coach that said they could beat an NBA team (or be a playoff team or some bullshit like that). But these are young kids. Granted, the 76ers are too and they technically field an NBA-caliber team.
The important thing to remember here is that the college basketball season is long. Lots can happen. Kids can get in trouble for running their teammates over in the parking lot (Indiana) or countless other crazy team violations. Injuries can and likely will happen. Yes, there’s an unprecedented amount of depth, but who knows how that can be affected. Other teams will get better too. Duke is strong. Wisconsin is strong. VCU and Wichita State won’t have a tough road to the NCAA Tournament. There’s just so much that could happen and teams that we can’t even begin to discuss. But after watching this last game, Kentucky is for real.
I hate Kentucky fans. They are the worst in college basketball. Duke fans are close second, but that’s about it. Even while acknowledging that, I can’t help but go on about how impressive the Wildcats looked in this young season. With a season gearing up and getting going, the only thing left to do is sit back and take it all in.