Even after a record seven players declared for the NBA draft, Kentucky still will be the team to beat in the SEC
Losing seven players to the NBA would signal a doomsday scenario for most college basketball programs. For Kentucky and John Calipari, it seemed more like a celebration.
Calipari announced on Thursday that seven Wildcats would forgo their eligibility and enter the NBA draft. Junior Willie Cauley-Stein; sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson; and freshmen Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns all joined Calipari in a press conference in Lexington. Coach Cal kicked off the announcement with a little drama.
"If you've decided to put your name in the draft, why don't you stand up?” Calipari said.
All seven players stood up.
The standing players hammered home the worst kept secret in college basketball: Kentucky won’t look the same next year. The bulk of the roster that took the Wildcats to 38-0 (and finished 38-1) won’t return to Lexington. But that doesn’t mean Kentucky is doomed to mediocrity in the SEC. Instead, it gives Calipari a chance to do what he does best: Restock and reload.
NBA dreams didn’t completely squeeze Kentucky dry. Six scholarship players are expected to return to Big Blue Nation, most notably forward Alex Poythress. The 6’8” rising senior was a key sixth man during the 2013-14 campaign, but he missed much of this season with a torn ACL. Calipari said Poythress might still consider a jump to the NBA, but he’s likely to return. That makes guard Tyler Ulis and forward Marcus Lee the biggest names returning from the Wildcats’ almost-unbeaten roster.
Three other scholarship players—Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and E.J. Floreal—are set to join Poythress, Lee and Ulis next season. But each member of that group must step into some big shoes. Kentucky’s seven departed players combined to score 61.6 points per game this season, 82.8% of the team’s scoring output. Cauley-Stein, Lyles and Towns formed the most formidable front line in college basketball. Now Ulis (5.6 points per game) returns as the team’s leading scorer.
That much departing talent isn’t good news for Kentucky’s immediate future. But Caipari said this decision wasn’t about the program’s stability.
"It's about each individual up here making a decision—not based on what's right for this university, not based on what's right for me and our staff—but what's right for them and their families," said Calipari, who put 19 players in the NBA in his first five seasons in Lexington.
The Wildcats knocked on the door of perfection this season, starting the year 38-0 and reaching the Final Four. They won an SEC regular-season and tournament title in the process. But a 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in Indianapolis halted the program’s shot at another national championship. That made the decision to leave a little tougher for several Wildcats.
"We all wanted a national championship, but I feel like we made a lot of history here, did a lot of great things," Booker said. "These are memories that I'll never forget. People always ask what my hardest decision was, and it's the decision to leave Kentucky, not to come here.”
Fortunately for the ‘Cats, Calipari has reinforcements headed to Lexington. No coach has taken better advantage of college basketball’s “one-and-done” rule than Calipari. Indeed, three of Kentucky’s departing players—Booker, Lyles and Towns—fall into that category. Ulis and the Wildcats’ returnees will need help from more talented newcomers to defend their SEC title.
Currently Kentucky has the No. 2 recruiting class in 2015, according to Rivals.com. The group includes 6’11’’ center Skal Labissiere, a five-star prospect and the No. 4 player in the country, and five-star guard Isaiah Briscoe. Calipari and company also remain in play for other uncommitted prospects like forward Jaylen Brown and guard Malik Newman, both five-stars.
Kentucky will certainly have talent next year—even if it is a notch below it roster from this season. Before they faced Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats boasted the No. 1 defense in the country, per kenpom.com. Kentucky finished the year with the fifth-best offense, as well. For most of the season, the ‘Cats weren’t just the country’s best team—many were including them among the all-time great rosters, especially on defense.
Maybe Kentucky won’t flirt with another undefeated season next year, but it should still enter with enough firepower to control the SEC. Poythress will be a senior who could become the team’s star if he stays healthy. Ulis showed signs of leadership during the NCAA tournament. And freshmen like Labissiere and Briscoe will be some of the most talented players in the SEC. The conference might be getting better, but there’s still plenty to like about Kentucky,
There’s no denying the Wildcats will look different next season. Losing seven NBA-caliber players from a near-unbeaten squad will do that. But Calipari has proven he knows how to reload as well as any coach in college basketball. Don’t count out Kentucky next season.