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Why losing Marvin Bagley III won’t be Kentucky Wildcats’ end-all

Another top freshman poses a bigger threat for the ‘Cats.

FloSports: FloWrestling Les Schwab Invitational
Michael Porter Jr. (left) battles for position with Marvin Bagley III (right) during the Les Schwab Invitational. The Kentucky Wildcats lost Bagley to Duke, but that doesn’t take away from what head coach John Calipari has built this upcoming season.
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Bagley III is pretty good. OK, he’s very good.

Fine, he’s incredible. Stellar ball handling skills. Strong at the post. Someone who knows how to score by any means necessary.

But those are the only compliments I’m giving to a 6-foot-11, 220-pound, No. 1 high school recruit who didn’t sign with Kentucky.

Bagley deserves the praise. Back in December, I watched him play at the GEICO ESPN High School Showcase. He and Romeo Langford brought in top scouts to that New Castle, Ind., gymnasium. Rick Pitino sat quietly in the front row. Bill Self was a few tables down, laughing and signing autographs. I sat a section over from Matt Painter and a few rows up from Duke assistant Nate James.

We watched Bagley score 28 points and lead No. 3 Sierra Canyon over No. 2 Oak Hill Academy.

At that game I witnessed firsthand how much hype was around these players, and with John Calipari nowhere in sight, I concluded in my head, “Yeah, Kentucky’s not getting Bagley.”

A week ago, that was proved true. Bagley signed with Duke.

I see silver linings in the Wildcats not snatching up the No. 1 recruit. Of course, I’m hesitant to say Bagley won’t make a difference for the already stacked Blue Devils, mostly because I don’t want to eat crow come tournament time if Coach K takes them to the finals. (It’s bad enough to have them there, let alone be wrong about it.).

But I don’t think having the top freshman on its squad will help Duke as much as expected. Here’s why:

First of all, Lexington Herald Leader’s Ben Roberts wrote that Kentucky actually has a better recruiting ranking than Duke, despite its star power. The Wildcats compiled 582 points on the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), while Duke sits at 451. Reiterating how Sea of Blue’s Zac Oakes puts it, Kentucky’s class is bigger and has more depth in talent, which trumps Duke’s acquisition of higher-ranked individual players.

Also more important than star power is team chemistry. The Wildcats have a nice even mix of new talent. Solid guards in Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo. Strong forwards in Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt. Big man Nick Richards down low. Mixed with veterans Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky has a bigger bench, putting the Wildcats in better position when players inevitably get into foul trouble.

And finally, this will be Bagley’s first - and only - year playing college hoops. If last year’s trend is any consolation, he and several other top recruits will sign to the NBA as soon as they can get pens in hand. Last year, 13 of the top 15 on ESPN’s recruiting list left for the professionals. And one of those two who stayed? Wenyen Gabriel. Maybe a well-balanced team will mean the Wildcats will have more freshman follow Gabriel’s path.

Do I think Bagley will keep Duke at the top of the polls? Yes. Is Bagley an amazing athlete? Of course.

But if anything, No. 2 recruit Michael Porter Jr. is a bigger threat. He’s a freshman at Missouri and will face the ‘Cats at least twice, maybe three times. Let’s put the focus on that for now.

Besides, Duke had the No. 1 recruit last year, and where did it end up? Knocked out of the tournament in the second round by an Southeastern Conference (SEC) school. Anything can happen.