UK had one guy (Brandon Knight) leave as a Freshman in 2011. He is now the starting point guard for the Pistons; he was ready. Enes Kanter, who never played, left also because the NCAA would not make him eligible. UK can still sign everyone plus one more (hopefully Julius Randle today) without cutting anyone. Jarrod Polson is a preferred walk-on, which means he only gets a scholarship if one becomes available. Cal is not cutting anybody. If he operated like that, Jon Hood would have been gone by now. Rumors are floating that Kyle Wiltjer may transfer back to the Pacific Northwest because he has not been a good fit for the system (can't create off the dribble and a liability on defense), but that is his call.
First, if you needed further proof that the SEC was down this year, the University of Kentucky’s loss at Robert Morris last night is the smoking gun. A UK roster stacked with future pros should have been able to beat the Colonials just by exiting their team bus. It didn’t.
The SEC could have gotten four teams into the NCAA Tournament, but there’s no strong argument that it should have. And for all the barking that this or that SEC team was better than La Salle or MTSU, the fact is a team that tied for second place in the conference just lost to Robert Morris in the NIT.
Now, what does that loss mean for Kentucky hoops moving forward? Probably not a lot.
John Calipari has landed four signing classes in a row that were historically good. The first three helped him lead the Wildcats to an Elite Eight, then to a Final Four, and then to a national title. This year’s class never jelled — even before Nerlens Noel’s season-ending injury — but that’s not going to change UK’s build-it-up-tear-it-down-build-it-up approach. Calipari already has another deep, stellar class on the hook.
Some have suggested that this year’s team lacked the leadership provided by one or two veterans, something last year’s banner-raising squad had in sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Senior Darius Miller was in many ways last year’s team’s glue.
With the Wildcats’ lack of success this year, Kentucky might have a more few returnees than expected next year and that could provide the experience this year’s squad lacked. At least that’s the theory. While Noel is still expected to be a top five NBA pick even with his ACL tear, guys like Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin said after last night’s loss that they don’t feel ready for the next level. So there you have it.
But if several players do return and Calipari inks five or six new all-everything players, who’ll get the minutes next season?
Before yesterday’s game, UK’s coach said he wasn’t worried about that:
“This may be a group of four-year players. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why is everybody panicked? So they’re four-year players? So? You move, you get another group and now you have a nice big team and you take on the world.”
But when asked specifically if some of the players who didn’t listen and didn’t play well this year might be shown the door, the coach said:
“Well, we’ll sit down and all that stuff when the time is right and that’s when the season is over.”
Shockingly, the season is now over just one game into Kentucky’s NIT run. Who returns and who signs will be the most followed story in the Bluegrass State this offseason. Calipari could find himself in a bit of a pickle on that front.
If the coach runs some of this year’s players off, it might make some star five-star players leery of joining his program in the future. And if he keeps everyone and simply buries a few players on the bench, you can bet that rival coaches will tell future recruits that Lexington no longer provides a guaranteed path to the National Basketball Association.
But since most five-star high schoolers believe they’re better than they actually are — see: Kentucky’s current freshmen class — Calipari will still probably be able to sign 99% of the blue-chippers he calls or texts regardless of what rival coaches are telling them. And since he’s had three great seasons in four years with his current approach, it’s unlikely Calipari will adopt a new plan any time soon.
So what does last night’s NIT loss mean for UK? Probably zip. Calipari’s going to keep chasing one-and-dones (even if some turn into two-and-dones or three-and-dones). Most years Kentucky will thrive simply by putting a massive amount of talent on the floor. Occasionally the assembly line will kick out a clunker due to attitudes, chemistry, or injuries. But we wrote of that possibility last April when the Cats were riding high, too.
Come to think of it, maybe the only thing that last night’s loss will mean is that a few Wildcat fans will now accept the reality that Calipari’s plan for a “non-traditional program” won’t work every year. No system does.
Update: Some good news today for UK basketball on the recruiting front.