With the addition of Eloy Vargas to the 2010-11 version of the Kentucky Wildcats, a big, missing piece of the puzzle finally snapped into place yesterday.
Vargas was considered to be the #2 player in the state of Florida behind Kenny Boynton in 2008, when he committed to Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators. Vargas is a versatile big man who can play the 4 or the 5, can post, face and shoot, block shots and defend both positions on the college level. Vargas also runs the floor very well and can rebound the ball.
"So why," you ask, "did Vargas leave Florida for Miami Dade, and why didn't Donovan play him more?" The answer, as near as I can tell, is twofold: Injury and academics. Like Patrick Patterson, Vargas has had a history of ankle problems in high school that carried over into his first year at Florida, which eventually required surgery. Given the apparent fact that Vargas did well academically at Miami Dade, we can probably postulate that his injuries along with the pressure of being a first-year freshman contributed to the academic difficulties he had at Florida. Vargas had a terrific year at Miami Dade, averaging 25 points on 47% shooting, 77% from the line, 40% from the arc (only 4/10 though), 14 rebounds/game (38% offensive) and 3.4 blocks.
Of course, translating first-year JUCO players' stats into production on a top D-I team is difficult, as we saw from Darnell Dodson. Dodson was spotty in his performance and suffered from a great deal of time in Coach Cal's doghouse for whatever reason. In the end, although Dodson was a significant contributor in some games, there were all too many in which he either didn't appear, or didn't play well. He was just up and down all year.
Big men, however, tend to do a bit better in the translation, particularly big men who were highly ranked and for whatever reason, wound up going the JUCO route. Just to be clear, I don't think Kentucky fans should expect Vargas to come in and become DeMarcus Cousins Jr. He just isn't that type of player, nor that type of talent. But Vargas is 6'10" and 220#, and that's something you can't teach. He is also very versatile in the mold of Patrick Patterson, and although he doesn't have the strength of Patterson (to say nothing of the mental toughness), he has a lot in common with him game-wise.
The other area of concern, magnified by the poor performance of the Wildcats in the fall semester of 2009, is academics. UK cannot afford to bring in another academic ne'er-do-well, but according to reports, Vargas has straightened up his attitude on that score. Of course, JUCO academics are not major college academics just as JUCO basketball is not major college basketball, so we'll have to reserve judgment on that and hope for the best. But we do have this report from Vargas' AAU coach to the Tuscon Citizen:
According to Vargas’ AAU coach, Kenny Gillion, grades are not a concern with his former player. Gillion told me last month that Vargas was a straight-A student at Miami-Dade Junior College this year.
That's very encouraging, and if he brings that same effort to Kentucky, Vargas could be a difference-maker.