Return of Harrison twins makes Kentucky a leading contender for 2014-15
Aaron and Andrew Harrison have decided to return to Kentucky for their sophomore seasons. If you want a reasonable gauge for what John Calipari's program will look like if the NBA age minimum shifts to include an additional year and college basketball's one-and-done dynamic perishes, here it is.
The Wildcats began last year as the preseason No. 1 and will probably start there again this fall, only this time they will do so on the basis of experience and performance, and not just breathless hype. The team that lost this past season's national championship game will be among the prohibitive favorites to return to that stage next year. Any college coaches championing the end of the one-and-done era officially can be careful what they wish for. Because they are about to get a taste of it, regardless of what the NBA and its players union ultimately decide.
Calipari will have at his disposal nine McDonald's All-Americans, with five in the frontcourt and four in the backcourt. Despite losing freshmen starters Julius Randle and James Young, Kentucky retains 59 percent of the scoring and 65 percent of the minutes played from the unit that finally lived up to its preseason hype by knocking off one powerhouse after another in the NCAA tournament and coming within one victory of a national championship. It's a roster teeming with talent but also convinced it has something to prove. Most crucially, after an uneven 2013-14 season largely spent trying to figure things out, it's a roster that now has awareness to go with its talent. It should know what it doesn't know and apply what it learns effectively. That should be terrifying for every other team in the country.
“I'm coming back for a second season in large part because last year's title run was special, but we still have unfinished business,” Aaron Harrison said in the statement announcing the siblings' intentions.
As usual, no program faced more consequential draft decisions than Calipari's, if only due to the sheer number of them. No program received more striking results.
Projected lottery picks Randle and Young chose to depart, but Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress all elected to return. That cemented the frontcourt options, which weren't going to be limited anyway with the arrival of five-star big men Karl Towns and Trey Lyles. The Harrisons' decision eliminates the lone remaining uncertainty. Instead of the backcourt responsibilities being turned over to two promising but unproven freshmen in Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, the Wildcats have two guards steeled by pressure and experience – 79 starts and 2,570 minutes combined for the Harrisons in 2013-14 – to produce and to get the ball to a monolithic paint crew that will feature four players 6-foot-10 or taller.
All told, a program built on transients will have a 2014-15 roster boasting players who have made 164 career starts. Calipari's only issue is finding playing time for all the talent he has. Even that has an upside: While the players' attitudes will determine whether minutes distribution becomes a problem, daily competition should be fierce and Calipari should have even more options than he did this season. He won't have to resort to mind games (see: The Tweak) to get the results he wants. Either players get it, or he finds someone else who does.
In some ways, Kentucky might not actually have it this good even if and when the NBA draft age minimum changes. In an alternate universe in which all players coming to college must stay at least two years, it would be interesting to see if Towns or Lyles or Ulis would have chosen UK in the first place. In a couple years, will top prospects see positions stacked for multiple seasons and seek clearer paths to playing time? Is the depth Calipari has in 2014-15 accidental or sustainable? It's all intriguing, and it could mean that the composition of this roster is more the exception than rule in the years to come.Duke, Wisconsin and others will have valid cases for national championship contention next season. Kentucky's will be as compelling as any. Almost all of the Wildcats' questions are answered, perhaps save one: What did everyone do with those 40-0 t-shirts again?