Is Kentucky reloading for another championship run next year?
Three major recruiting moves last week reshaped the Kentucky basketball landscape. On Wednesday evening, Kentucky head coach John Calipari went on ESPNU's National Signing Day show and braced Big Blue Nation for bad news.
But in the end, whatever they choose I live with. I don’t take the thing personal. I never have. And the other side of it is, by not picking your school, sometimes there’s a reason they didn’t want it. To come with us, you’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to be all in. And if you’re not, you’re better off going somewhere else.
Later on the show, the McDonald's All-American Game MVP, Shabazz Muhammad, disappointed Kentucky fans by committing to UCLA. Calipari's words foreshadowed an 0-for-2 night, but fellow top recruit Nerlens Noel "shocked the world" when he revealed he was heading to Kentucky--by shaving the Wildcats' logo in his hair.
The latest recruiting domino fell on Friday, when Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi surprised many by picking Missouri on his visit to Columbia. He had been interested in Kentucky, and many felt that Calipari would at least get a chance to make a pitch to Oriakhi in person before Alex made his decision. Oriakhi had scheduled a visit to Lexington on April 20, a visit that will now never happen.
Nerlens Noel to Kentucky: Reloading, Not Rebuilding
The post-Championship season hangover is all too easy to acquire. Just ask 2007-08 Florida, 2009-10 North Carolina, or last year's Connecticut team. The former two earned high seeds in the NIT, while the Huskies found themselves crushed by NCAA sanctions and Iowa freakin' State in the Round of 64.
Kentucky could very well find itself in a similar boat, but it will not be due to lack of talent. All five starters from last year are likely to take their talents to the NBA, along with seniors Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas. That would leave rising sophomore Kyle Wiltjer as the only returnee who played significant minutes last year, and even he averaged just 11.6 minutes a game.
Still, it's a testament to Calipari's recruiting efforts that Kentucky could start a five-star recruit at each position: Noel at center, Wiltjer at power forward, Alex Poythress at small forward, Archie Goodwin at shooting guard, and Ryan Harrow at point guard. Per RSCI, the lowest ranked of that starting lineup is Harrow, at "just" #22.
Even with all that talent, prior to Wednesday, Kentucky appeared to be missing that "game-changer" like Anthony Davis, someone who impacted the game and elevated his teammates just by being on the court. Enter Nerlens Noel, who is as dynamite as they come on the defensive end. Defensively, he has been reported as better than Davis. I'll believe it when I see it, but judging by his work in the Nike Hoop Summit and Jordan Brand Classic, Noel will become a defensive anchor in the middle immediately.
Noel's presence alone should be enough to keep Kentucky atop the defensive efficiency leaderboard, as Kentucky fans have grown accustomed to under the defensively-heady Calipari. Whether Noel will have the same sensational freshman impact as Davis, or players like John Wall, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony prior to that, remains to be seen. All I know is I feel a lot better with Noel than without, and am now more confident in thinking that the Wildcats are reloading, not rebuilding.
Shabazz Muhammad to UCLA: Wither the Scorers?
As impactful as Noel figures to be defensively, Shabazz Muhammad figures to be offensively. In watching the post-season All-Star games, two things became clearly evident to me: (1) the talent level is significantly down in this year's class, and (2) Muhammad is on a whole 'nother level of stardom offensively.
If you were to ask me which freshman has the best shot at winning the Naismith, I'd pick Muhammad--and it wouldn't be close (sorry, Noel fans). Shabazz is a dynamic player offensively: he can drive, slash, pull up, and finish inside. In the games, he was probably the second best perimeter shooter aside from Duke-bound Rasheed Sulaimon, and yes, that was very much a backhanded compliment.
The point is, there does not appear to be a Doron Lamb or Darius Miller on next year's team. I do not see a playmaking guard who is equally adept at driving to the hoop, creating the pull-up midrange jumper, and hitting 40% from downtown. A guy like Goodwin looks like a very capable slasher...who cannot really hit the broad side of a barn from distance. Harrow shot 22% on three-pointers in his freshman year. Poythress looks like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist reincarnated, for better (66% FG% at the rim) or worse (35% on 2-pt jumpers, 26% on 3-pt jumpers).
Muhammad would have immediately become scoring option A on next year's Kentucky team. Now, it looks like the Wildcats will be searching from amongst a bunch of B to C scorers and hoping someone steps up. Or, like this year's team, everyone steps up.
Now, Muhammad's decision is good news for returnees Wiltjer and Jon Hood. Both should be the best three-point shooters on next year's team. For Hood in particular, he has a chance to play a major role on next year's team as the primary wing backup and sharp-shooter. Here's hoping he makes a full recovery from his torn ACL and proves me right.
Alex Oriakhi to Missouri: The Experience Gap
If talent is one piece of the equation to college basketball success, then experience is the other. Jeff Haley (Reggieball at Burnt Orange Nation) put together a nice study that shows the strong correlation experience and recruiting rankings have with team success.
Remember that 2009-10 North Carolina team we talked about? It was pretty stocked with talent: sophomore Ed Davis, sophomore Tyler Zeller, freshman John Henson, and some former blue chips that didn't really pan out like senior Deon Thompson and sophomore . II
On paper, Kentucky will have a talented team. On the court, it remains to be seen. That is where a veteran presence like Alex Oriakhi would have been really beneficial. His coaching clash with Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun aside, Oriakhi has been an outstanding collegiate player with a mature man's body and a wealth of experience. Kentucky is expected to return a combined 1,283 minutes of career playing time next year (Twany Beckham: 497, Wiltjer: 462, Hood: 232, Jarrod Polson: 62, Brian Long/Sam Malone: 30). Oriakhi has a career 2,760 minutes on his own.
Even if Calipari is able to land a top recruit like Anthony Bennett or Amile Jefferson, the Wildcats won't have a suitable substitute for experience. There is no Patrick Patterson on next year's team. No DeAndre Liggins. No Darius Miller. Wiltjer and Hood are as good as it gets. Calipari has already proven he can win a championship with a team comprised of multiple contributing freshmen. Can he win a championship with a team almost entirely comprised of freshmen, and devoid of upperclassmen? Now that is truly an interesting question.
And whatever the answer is, it will be a ridiculously entertaining season to watch.