The young girl above met Willie Cauley-Stein at an autograph signing this weekend and the two pictures are just about the most precious things that I have ever seen (and that may be the first time I have used the word precious since the movie). She may not yet have an opinion about basketball recruiting but if so, then she would be one of the very few UK fans that does not. The talk on the lips of virtually all UK fans recently has been the same. Why hasn't John Calipari closed the deal with recruits in the last two weeks of the Spring signing period?
After the devastating loss to Wisconsin, many fans went through a period of mourning...I have had a number of folks tell me that they have avoided all Cats news, simply because accepting the loss is too difficult. But for the rest of us, our thoughts have moved to more glorious things, like the chance to see Kentucky on the court again and that means the team next season. Nearly every Spring sees a plethora of the nation's top players picking Kentucky at the last minute in order to fulfill their basketball dreams, and we assumed this year would be no exception. But as of today, it hasn't yet happened. So what gives? I thought a quick rundown of how we got here and what we may be able to expect was in order.
The seeds of the 2015 recruiting class began the day last season when Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison Twins returned. All three players were expected to leave and mid-season and when various factors brought them back, the entire outlook of last season and this recruiting class changed. The decision begat one of the greatest years we have ever had in this program but it also made 2015 more difficult, as the entire roster was not only full, but in flux. Two elite recruits took the "I don't care who is there, I am coming" mantra...Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe. I love the moxie of that thought process and their confidence/dedication to UK will be showcased next season. But for the rest, Kentucky as a final option could not be determined until the day seven players stood up and said they were leaving. Thus a couple of players that UK likely led on in the fall (Stephen Zimmerman and Malik Newman) had their decision stretched out, and in so doing allowed other schools to make up ground. They did and the hometown B-level programs (and let's be clear, neither UNLV or Mississippi State will even sniff the top 10 next season) became the choice.
DEVIN BOOKER AND DAKARI JOHNSON
Calipari was of course thrilled when Willie and the Twins returned and the effect on future recruiting was secondary. But as the year progressed, the mindset around the UK program seemed to be that those three plus Karl-Anthony Towns were certainly gone. Trey Lyles had always wanted to play for only one year, so if he stayed on the Draft boards, the assumption was that he would leave as well (and he did). However Dakari Johnson and Devin Booker were wildcards. When the season began, the notion that Booker would leave seemed silly, as he was almost certainly projected as a two-year player. But then he got hot, the Splash Brothers took off in Golden State (providing a model for a Booker-type guard in Klay Thompson) and his stock immediately rose. Still no one was sure what Dakari and Devin would do all year. I talked to a good source in late February who told me the working assumption was that Dakari would leave and Devin stay...but both could be flipped. And in the end that is almost what happened. Booker was much more certain in his decision and Dakari wavered before declaring for the Draft. But the UK folks who hoped they would get at least one and maybe both, were left with then having to make up for the loss of seven players all en masse, a scenario that seemed unlikely until the end of the NCAA Tournament run.
THE 2015 CLASS
If you have listened to me on the radio, you know that I have said this class is weird...and it is. A lot of guys have chosen schools that would have seemed like bizarre picks in years past, simply because of unique situations (Stepfather on the staff, father played at the school, wanting to stay in the same city with parents). However there has also been a change that is worth noting...more schools are making the recruitment of elite One and Dones in a group a priority.
For the past 5 years, only two schools have tried to bundle One and Done players...Kentucky and Kansas. But spurred on by the success of those two programs, now Duke, Arizona, and UNC are doing it as well. Before, they might pick at a couple of guys here and there, but going for multiple players was not in the cards and UK/Kansas reaped the rewards. Now that luxury is gone...and every top kid is being recruited by all the blue chip programs. So far UNC hasn't had a ton of success with this strategy, but Duke is becoming a player. So these top battles will become more difficult and while Calipari will surely win more than his fair share of them, the number of his opponents are likely to increase (this is especially true in 2016).
Coming into the Spring, it looked like UK would almost certainly get Zimmerman and likely would find a way to get Newman. Then Zimmerman got turned off by how good Skal Labissiere is (and he is REALLY good) and Ben Howland became the final piece at making Malik to Starkville happen. So UK was in some ways, back at square one. So what happens? Here is how the scene looks as of today:
Possibly the player that could fit a need the most for UK, Brandon Ingram was always going to be an uphill battle. He is from North Carolina, grew up a Tarheel fan and is in the state where the current National Champion is located. Getting him to Lexington is a chore...but UK has made up ground in the last few weeks. I am told that he is seriously considering Kentucky and when he makes his announcement at 6:10 tomorrow, I think the Cats have a fighting shot. I still expect his decision to be Duke...those that have followed him longer than I believe that it is what he will do. However Calipari has made it a race, after zeroing in on him when it was clear the Cats weren't getting Newman (which was clear a few weeks ago). If he can pull it off, it will be a great come from behind upset grab.
UK has been all over the board with Diallo. He was Slice's recruit when he came to Kentucky and at times, UK has led thanks to his time here. But then Mullin gets the job at St Johns and makes that a more plausible landing spot, Cliff Alexander gets ruled ineligible at Kansas and leaves an opening for him and Slice heads back home to New York, taking away UK's best connection. Diallo is still expected to make his decision this week and he asked for the UK staff to make another visit a week ago, a good sign no matter how you look at it. I am not sure what he will do, but the Cats do have a shot. It isn't a position of need necessarily, but if he comes here, then the Cats will have a great front line.
UK hadn't even begun to recruit Murray until three weeks ago...now he might be the biggest prize out there to grab. Murray blew up at the Nike Hoop Summit and the working plan (that he would go to prep school next year) may have quickly changed. He is looking more likely to reclassify to this year and the Cats are doing everything to make up for lost time. He was the best perimeter player in basketball this All Star season and the Canadian now has to decide whether he goes with the school that has been on him the longest (Oregon, which has invested of time in him) or the shiny new power program that has arrived on his doorstep. UK is trying to get him to visit next weekend (he chose not to come to Lexington for the tournament with his AAU team this weekend because he would not have been allowed to meet with coaches or have a tour of the campus with anyone from UK during the trip)...if they are successful (which we should know by Tuesday), I like UK's chances. If not, Oregon is likely the favorite. He is a potential superstar.
The wildcard of all wildcards. Brown might be the most explosive talent in the class. I have seen him do things on the basketball floor that no one else in this class can do athletically. He will be a superstar. But no one has any idea what he is thinking. It is assumed that Adidas schools are in the lead, with thoughts varying from Kansas to UCLA to Michigan. But Calipari has been going with him a long time and Brown has said that there is no place like Kentucky. Last summer Brown told me (and others) that there were people around him who didn't want him to go to UK. But Calipari has been to see him many times and the UK folks haven't given up. Will he go against his family and Adidas and come to Lexington and be a star (and likely give Kentucky 2 of the top 3 picks in next year's Draft)? Most all the experts seem to think that is unlikely...but they dont' know any more than the rest of us. He is the rarity in modern recruiting...an elite talent whose destination is anybody's guess.
Mulder is on his visit to UK right now and leaves tomorrow. If he doesn't commit to Kentucky within 24-48 hours, I will be surprised. He is a great shooter who will be a good role player for the Cats no matter who else they get. I asked someone to compare his role at Kentucky and they told me "think Darnell Dodson without all the baggage." UK could use such a player next season.
So that is where we are...Calipari needed one of a few things to happen for next year's team to once again be elite.
Either Booker returned, Newman came, Brown surprised everyone, Ingram spurned his hometown schools or Murray became a rabbit out of the hat. The first two options have passed. Now we wait for the last three. As of now the roster looks like this:
PG: Tyler Ulis
SG: Isaiah Briscoe
PF Alex Poythress
C Skal Labissiere
6th: Marcus Lee
I put Poythress at the 4 because I am told that is where Calipari wants to use him most often next year, as that is his true college position. I expect the Cats to add Mulder and at least one other piece. Who that other piece is determines whether UK is just very good (which they still can be with the roster above) or elite. Cross your fingers.