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Kentucky Basketball: Two Strikes in the End Game

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With the commitment (albeit somewhat lukewarm) of Terrence Jones to the Washington Huskies yesterday, Kentucky is out of obvious options for filling the power forward spot vacated by Patrick Patterson.  The only known high school recruit remaining on the board for Kentucky right now is Clemson decommit Marcus Thornton, a combo forward from Atlanta. 

At 6'7"/215#, Thornton is not the kind of player who could jump into the four spot at Kentucky.  In fact, during his AAU campaigns, Thornton did play the four and struggled with the length and strength of the kind of bigger players he will be facing in that position while in college.  Thornton knows that his future in college is mostly in the three spot, so don't look at him as a backup plan to Jones -- he was never a backup plan to anyone.

This morning, there are rumors that Jones is wavering on his commitment to Washington due to a late push by Calipari after Jones called Coach Cal to tell him about his decision.  I would not read too much into these.  My feeling is that Jones wants to play with his high-school buddy Terrence Ross, and wants to stay close to home.  Myself, I would like to see him stick to his decision.  Jones has not signed an LOI, apparently, but I don't expect him to.  My experience is that your first decision is usually right, and even though I would love to have him, I think he should stick to his guns.  I don't blame Calipari for fighting to the end, but I think now, the day after, enough is enough.  As Percy Allen says in the above link:

Not sure why so many folks are bagging on Calipari. He's competing. That's what he expects of his players and that's what he's doing. It's what coaches do. I remember Pete Carroll competing to keep Mark Sanchez the day the USC quarterback announced he was turning pro. Carroll got killed for it by the media and fans, but so what. Coaches tell their players to compete until the final seconds of a game and Calipari is acting accordingly. I believe he spoke to Jones yesterday, but only a handful of folks know what was said.

I think that's right, but now it's time to move on.  Congratulations to Terrence Jones.

So what does this 0-2 on Jones and C.J. Leslie mean for Kentucky?  Well, not having a player the right size for the four is not tremendously important in the Dribble Drive Motion offense, which we will no doubt be seeing a lot for the first time next year.  Despite not having a power player for the big forward spot, UK has a number of long, athletic players who can play in that spot at some level. 

It is on defense, assuming this need is not addressed later, that the problem will be more apparent.  Guys like Darius Miller, Jon Hood, DeAndre Liggins or Darnell Dodson have the length to guard some college power forwards, but not the bulk.  They will get pushed around on the block and double-teams will be forced.  It is a significant and dangerous hole in the lineup that will be exploited by bigger teams.

But perhaps the most difficult problem to overcome right now is the sheer lack of bodies.  Kentucky currently has nine scholarship players likely to come or return, with the remote possibility of a tenth.  If UK were to land Thornton, the scholarship count would rise to a maximum of 11 but more likely 10.  Ten players are enough, no doubt, if there are few injuries -- after all, Coach Cal often plays around eight guys, particularly at the end of the season.  At the current level, though, UK would be extremely vulnerable to injury.

Moving on to plan B, we have had a bunch of people asking about Eloy Vargas, who was a four-star Rivals recruit that Billy Donovan brought to Florida a couple of years ago, but who left before last year to go to Miami-Dade Junior College (the same school that UK player Darnell Dodson came from).  Vargas is on Kentucky's radar (maybe more so now than ever), although Vargas also is not a power forward, but a true center.  Vargas would add depth to Kentucky's front line, but he would not address the problems that the Leslie and Jones decisions helped to create.

At this point, Arizona looks like the leader for Vargas, but Kentucky could put on a big push -- you can never count out Calipari in any recruiting scenario.  My money, however, is on Vargas not coming to Kentucky.  I think Vargas truly was a backup plan against the scenario that Kentucky finds itself in today.  Usually, players like this who are seriously wooed by a major player like Arizona do not go to the school using them as plan B.

So what is left?  Well, you never know who may be freed up by some kind of problem between now and August.  The Connecticut Huskies are reportedly about to be accused of NCAA violations, so some of their recruits could wind up getting cold feet about that.  There will also be players leaving various schools after the end of the academic year that UK could pick up that may have a case for a wavier of the transfer rule.  There are many possibilities that have yet to play out.

The Leslie and Jones decisions also reflect the increasing value of home-court advantage in recruiting scenarios.  We saw that work to the advantage of the Wildcats in Patrick Patterson's case, and now the double-Yang to that Yin has struck.  As they say, what goes around, comes around.

But one concern this does raise is waiting so long to sign a recruiting class.  Coach Calipari had a bit of bad luck this year that so many players declared for the NBA, although I'm sure he would dispute my characterization -- bad luck for him in this case means good luck for his players who are leaving.  Good luck or bad, though, it put Kentucky in the position of needing at least 2/3 of the Jones/Leslie/Thornton triumvirate, and that ship has now sailed.

Calipari could have signed a very good recruiting class much earlier if he had wanted to, which argues somewhat for a recruiting strategy that is more balanced between the early and late periods.  Calipari has had so much success with the late signing period, though, that it's hard to quibble too much with his methods.  Plus, 2011 is already shaping up to be a monster class with Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague already in the bag, so perhaps this re-evaluation has already been made and addressed.

In the final analysis, don't let the Jones decision trouble you, nor that of Leslie.  Kentucky may have a year next year in which they don't really threaten to win it all, but this recruiting class is still easily top ten, and UK should be very, very good.  And you never know -- there could still be a late impact addition to this team.  To be fair, there could also be some bad news -- Darnell Dodson has been rumored to be leaving, although I am somewhat skeptical of that.  Overall, though, with the matriculation of Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, Enes Kanter and Stacey Poole, Kentucky will be just fine, even if nobody else comes along but walk-ons.