I checked the weather forecast, I even threw caution to the wind, and bravely trekked outside to look up and see for myself... yes, the sky is not falling. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the beginning of the end of the dominance of the John Calipari at UK era.
I do concede that we did lose our top seven players; it is a big loss and will be tough to recover. However, the frustration and anxiety among Big Blue Nation during this recruiting period is borderline palpable. I think there are several reasons why the anxiety is there, and there are definitely some understandable reasons for them.
First off, the biggest reason is because the ‘Cats fell short of #9 in a year where it seemed like a foregone conclusion. The need to truly reload with seven or eight more future NBA players to get another crack at the ring is a bit unreasonable, but an understandable desire by BBN's high standards. This past year's version of UK is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity for us as fans. Simply put, we are not going to see that collection of talent again.
The fact that we could not bring the banner home with that many pros means we think we need one or two more, and then we would have been home free. The truth of the matter is that we do not need 8, 9, or 10 NBA players to win a title... in fact, seven of the eight banners hanging in Rupp came with a collection of less than that. The general accepted amount of NBA type talents it has historically taken to have a chance at a championship is three.
Without signing another player, Calipari has three players projected to be drafted in the 2016 draft in Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere, and Alex Poythress. If Cal lands any of the other prospects that are uncommitted, that will only add to the list.
Kentucky has also been in a similar position as this one. After the 2010 disappointment the Wildcats lost John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton. Losing your backcourt, frontcourt, and the guy you thought would step into your frontcourt is a big blow. That spring Cal would add a similar class to what he has signed now. He signed #4 Brandon Knight, #9 Terrance Jones, and #29 Doron Lamb to add to the nearly empty cupboard. That team went on to the Final Four as we all know.
There is also the fact that next season appears to be a veritable Wild West. There are many teams losing great players and there is not one particular team loading up on recruits for next year. I decided to look at all the possible top teams for next year along with recruiting and see just what the "contender" pool looks like.
There are multiple excessively early top 25 rankings so I decided to compile them and come up with a composite ranking. Below is a total of those rankings and it comes to roughly 37 teams that are likely to fit into the top 25 or better in 2016. While I agree that even attempting a top 25 for next season is a stretch, it is highly likely that the top 5-10 teams will be on this list.
From that list I decided to take a composite of the team recruiting rankings pulling from Rivals, 24/7 Sports, Scout, and ESPN. The rationale is that you would have a good idea of the teams that are likely to be in the hunt next year by looking at the best returning teams along with the "reinforcements" they are bringing in.
While North Carolina and Virginia are expected to be strong next season, the Cavaliers are losing Justin Anderson to the NBA, and we saw the effect that had on them at the end of 2015. Couple that loss with an underwhelming class and it just feels like Virginia will be more "hype than heart." North Carolina will be good and does have a few potential targets left to sign, but Kenny Williams is the most likely to get nabbed according to 24/7 Sports' Crystal Ball. The #81 prospect is not exactly a program changer. Iowa State is going to be a contender by all indications, and they are a worthy program. Having said that, they will likely just be a very good team and not a dominant one.
Then you have our beloved Wildcats as a composite Top 5 team and our composite #2 recruiting class. Beyond North Carolina returning their core and Iowa state, there really are not any teams out there that are scary. Duke is probably the closest that fits that bill as they were likely a top 10 team without adding anymore to their class. However, they have now secured a top-3 class with today's announcement that Derrick Thornton has reclassified to 2015 and committed. The Blue Devils are also likely to get a commitment from Brandon Ingram which would likely give them the #1 class across the board (assuming UK does not sign 1 or 2 more). Then you have the staple in Michigan State and Tom Izzo with a top 10 class, not to mention out west the Arizona Wildcats with their consensus #2 class as well as strong returners... these teams sound familiar?
So, realistically we are looking at a list of UNC, Iowa St, UK, Duke, Arizona, Michigan St, Maryland, and Kansas as your likely contenders for 2016. So let us now look at what top 100 recruits are remaining and where they could land and see if any of those teams could get that boost into the next stratosphere of talent.
As you can see, we are unlikely to miss on a recruit that would change the course of 2016 for any one team. UNC adding the #81 recruit, and Iowa State adding the #73, is not the difference in us having a chance to beat them. It seems unlikely that we will be getting Brandon Ingram at this point so conceding that to Duke basically puts them a tier above UK. That's assuming we strike out with the final four guys we are battling to sign.
I think the X-factor here is Cheick Diallo. While the Crystal Ball has him likely headed to Kansas with UK and St. Johns behind, the scuttlebutt is this is a two-program race between St. Johns and UK. St. Johns is not a contender this coming year so even losing Diallo to them keeps Kansas from getting him. Let us assume that Kansas does get Diallo, how scared are we of Kansas? BIll Self notoriously under-performs on the biggest stage and it is a crap-shoot on his freshmen performing like they should. Just look at #11 recruit Kelly Oubre and #3 recruit Cliff Alexander last year.
Another significant target is Jaylen Brown, he is the #2 player in the class and his recruitment is filled with mystery. If we were to miss, and Jaylen Brown goes to UCLA, again, not a bad loss for us. In fact, getting Brown would put us over the top and we could be the favorite again, but losing him to another non-contender in UCLA would not hurt badly. I think if Cal can land Brown, we would be the favorite with the #2 and #3 players in the class coming in with Briscoe, Matthews and joining Poythress, Ulis, and Lee.
We are also in a two-team race for Malik Newman with Ben Howland and Mississippi St. with a lot of momentum for Mississippi State. Having said that, if we do not get him, he goes to a definite non-contender in Mississippi St. As Justin Rowland at Rivals pointed out so well, getting Newman would bump UK up into that upper echelon of title favorites, but losing him to Miss State is not a crushing blow for the season.
Malik Newman doesn't break UK's '15-16 season, but he might make it. Would still need help but roster instantly more stacked if he says yes.— Justin Rowland (@RowlandRIVALS) April 21, 2015
So while there is reason for frustration simply because we are not dominating 2015 the way he have before, the basis is a bit short sighted. All we need to do is get one of the targets on Cal's short list and we are right there with anyone. Truthfully, we will likely end up with Duke again as one of the top 2 or 3 teams with a chance to win the title in 2016.
I also have to state the obvious, Coach Calipari would have to strike out on all of those targets, and do we really think he is going to whiff? Even if he did, we will STILL be a Top 10 team with a Top 2-3 class coming in. Calipari is also working an angle similar to Duke with Thornton, he has Jamal Murray as a potential target for 2015. Murray is a 6'3" Guard in the 2016 class that is the #15 ranked recruit. It is very possible he reclassifies for 2015 and becomes a Wildcat. This would likely put our class at the top as well, add Brown, Diallo, or Ingram and we are scary again.
We get one of them and we are a title contender; we get two of them and we are a title favorite. It is a weird year for college basketball recruiting, and I like my chances with our guy Coach Cal.