This group of young girls watching Jared Polson speak at a church recently are similar to how UK fans were in hoping to get one more recruit
There have been some strange recruiting decision moments in my time here on KSR. There was the time we had a cell phone held up at the Patrick Patterson press conference in order to play the audio live over my (virtually unheard) radio show. There have been the countless streams of grainy video from high school gyms across America, as UK fans crash all viewing parties with their sheer numbers. And there was the year that all of UK’s decisions were part of a reality show, that showcased the traveling circus that can be UK basketball. However few decisions for me were more random than the one Friday night with Jaylen Brown. I was at the Barnstable Brown party with Drew Franklin and about 25-30 UK fans, all waiting anxiously for the Brown decision. The group was outfitted in tuxedos and surrounded by celebrities but the only thing anyone cared about was where Brown would go. When the text came through that he had picked California, I announced it to the group and the look of shock was ubiquitous. HOW COULD HE DO THAT? I just shook my head and answered the same way I have explained the Newman, Zimmerman and other decisions this year with two words, “That’s Recruiting.”
It has been an odd string of losses for UK and it is clear that the continued punches to the gut have weighed on the fanbase. Just one week ago, it looked as if Jaylen Brown had virtually no chance of picking Kentucky, but then things changed. Kentucky moved up on Brown to such a degree that most around Lexington believed the Cats had him. The last Friday was a circus of activity. A national recruiting insider sent me this text around noon, “it is Kentucky or California…I think he has eliminated Michigan but don’t tell anyone because the kid doesn’t want it out.” Not telling anyone was easy (it was Oaks day and the distractions were everywhere) but the sentiment made me feel great. I was hesitant to eliminate Michigan since most of the world seemed to think they were the favorite, but if it was Kentucky and California, how could a kid from Atlanta, Ga who wants to be in the NBA not pick Kentucky? During the Oaks I got a text that the folks in Lexington were feeling good about their chances and that “everyone will be by their phones this weekend.” One national recruiting writer even went so far as to tell me he had the Brown to Kentucky story written, because he felt it was close to done. Then Friday night came…and the pick was California. Amazing.
At the end of the day, this much is clear. The platoon system killed Kentucky on the recruiting trail in the final weeks. What was a huge positive during the season, because it showcased how Calipari would take care of his kids and a group of players could sacrifice their individual interests for a collective goal, became a hammer that opposing coaches pounded UK with on the recruiting trail. One source told me, “Zimmerman, Newman, Diallo and Swanigan all four at some point probably had UK as their leader…and all four were barraged with the platoon talk all season.” Even though Calipari told the recruits that the platoon thing was a one time deal and told parents that people should look at it as a positive (he takes care of all his kids), the worry about playing time being sacrificed made kids who were UK leans turn into open recruits. After seven players declared for the Draft, Kentucky then found itself behind in recruitments that it once led in (Zimmerman, Newman) and forced to play catchup on recruitments where it had trailed (Ingram, Brown). Everyone assumed someone would bite…but slowly no one did as the characteristic which made the 2015 team so special was used to help weaken the crop that would make up the 2016 version.
In Brown’s particular case, another factor was at play. A source close to the situation told me on Sunday that “Jaylen Brown is one kid where the UK media/fan attention actually hurt UK’s chances.” According to the source, Brown expressed to a number of people the worry that the attention at UK was overwhelming and might be more than he would like to deal with. All season long, Brown has avoided the media spotlight…he didn’t do a ton of interviews, his people leaked almost nothing to the press and he also chose to make his announcement without any tv cameras or press in attendance. Instead he did it after a team banquet, and the only reason people knew it was happening was due to a school student fan section Twitter account (how random is that?). Brown’s choice of California was for a variety of reasons but those close to the recruitment said a big one was the circus that UK basketball was the year/has been for decades. “For most players, UK being on Sportcenter every night and having fans blowing up their twitter account is a positive…but Jaylen is one of the few that saw it as a negative.”
So now we are where we are. Jamal Murray is still on the board, but his status at this moment is unclear. He may not want to reclassify to 2015 and if he does, issues of him fitting into the UK system/shunning an Oregon program that has been on him for some time will still come into play. His situation should be more clear at some point this week. There is still always the chance another player could pop up (either by transfer or a potential 2016 reclassification), but fans should come closer to accepting the very real possibility that this UK team as constituted may be the final draft. A very good year is still quite possible. It requires a few variables to break a certain way (Alex be healthy, Skal totally eligible, Derek Willis ready to make a step up), but if those things happen, the Cats can still be very good. But absent Murray or a last minute surprise, Brown’s pick of Cuonzo Martin and former UK Assistant Tracy Webster (who was Cuonzo’s lead recruiter for Cal on Brown), may have made the roster what it will be…a group with lots of talent, lots of questions and the a vow to never use the word “platoon” again.