This weekend in Atlanta, four teams will battle to win the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship at a little thing they like to call the Final Four.
Kentucky's six McDonald's All-Americans: Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young and Julius Randle
Because of John Calipari’s exploits on the recruiting trail, it is entirely possible that the battle for next year’s national championship is already over. And once again, it looks like they may have to ship the crystal basketball to Lexington, Ky.
And Calipari may roll into Cowboys Stadium (aka Jerry World) in Arlington, Texas, with three of Texas’ native sons leading Kentucky’s charge for that championship.
For the fifth year in a row, Kentucky and Calipari will lead the basketball recruiting rankings. But even Calipari has outdone himself this time. His seven-man class includes six players ranked in the top 13 nationally in the 247Sports.com recruiting rankings.
That top six just set a record on Wednesday night for the most players representing one school at the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago.
That haul includes the players ranked second, third and fourth in the 247Sports.com rankings.
And get a load of this: There are rumblings that Huntington (W.Va.) Prep small forward Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s No. 1 prospect for 2013, might also opt to sign with Kentucky. (Kansas, North Carolina and Florida State are also hard in the running for Wiggins.)
Here is a quick look at the guys already signed or committed to Kentucky for 2013:
* Julius Randle, 6-9, power forward, Plano (Texas) Prestonwood Christian – Randle is rated as the No. 2 overall prospect for 2013. He just committed to UK on March 20 over the likes of Kansas, Texas, Florida and others. He had 11 points and seven rebounds in the McDonald’s game. He will sign during the late period starting April 26.
For the fifth year in a row, UK coach John Calipari has the nation's top recruiting class
* Aaron Harrison, 6-4, shooting guard, Richmond (Texas) Travis – Harrison and his twin brother Andrew are key members of this class. Aaron is rated as the No. 3 overall prospect nationally for 2013 by 247Sports.com. He had six points and five assists in the McDonald’s game.
* Andrew Harrison, 6-4, point guard, Richmond (Texas) Travis – The other half of the Harrison twins, Andrew is rated as the No. 4 prospect overall for 2013. He had 10 points and four assists in the McDonald’s game.
* Marcus Lee, 6-9, power forward, Antioch (Calif.) Deer Valley – Lee is rated as the nation’s No. 9 prospect for 2013. He passed on Indiana, Duke, Louisville and Arizona to sign with UK.
* James Young, 6-6, small forward, Troy (Mich.) Rochester – Young is the nation’s No. 11 prospect for 2013. He had offers from Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State and others. He had six points and four rebounds in the McDonald’s game.
* Dakari Johnson, 6-10, center, Montverde (Fla.) Academy – Johnson, rated as the nation’s top center prospect and No. 13 overall, verbaled to UK on Jan. 5 over Florida, Georgetown and Syracuse. He will sign in the late period. He had 12 points and five boards in the McDonald’s game.
* Derek Willis, 6-9, small forward, Mount Washington (Ky.) Bullitt East – Willis is rated as the nation’s No. 64 prospect, but is still a four-star player and by no means a “throw in.” Willis, the Bluegrass state’s top prospect this year, could have played at Indiana, Louisville or Purdue.
Kentucky prides itself on its men’s basketball program. UK has the most all-time wins and the highest winning percentage in the history of the sport. The Wildcats’ eight national titles trail only UCLA’s 11. UK has been to 15 Final Fours, the third-most in NCAA history.
But after Tubby Smith’s 1998 team won the national title, Kentucky went through a long Final Four drought. Smith left for Minnesota in the spring of 2007. Billy Gillispie came in and the descent became steep and precipitous as UK missed the NCAA for the first time in 18 years in 2009. Gillispie was labeled a “bad fit” and was fired.
It took four days for athletic director Mitch Barnhart to hire Calipari, then the head coach at Memphis. Big things were predicted and ultimately delivered by Calipari.
His first recruiting class included dynamic point guard John Wall as well as DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe. That 2009-10 team went 35-3, losing to West Virginia in an NCAA Elite Eight match-up.
In 2010, he brought in another star guard in Brandon Knight to go with Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. The 2010-11 team knocked off Ohio State and North Carolina to win the East Regional before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Final Four. That team ended up 29-9 and snapped UK’s Final Four drought at 13 seasons.
The 2011 class was built around center Anthony Davis with wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and point guard Marquis Teague also along for the ride. All they would do is go 38-2 and defeat Kansas for the 2012 national championship. Davis went out as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft with Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2.
Calipari’s 2012 class was supposed to continue the great run, but things did not materialize. Power forward Nerlens Noel was the top name along with guard Archie Goodwin, wing Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley-Stein. For whatever reason, things did not click and Noel was lost for the season with a knee injury in February. UK missed the NCAA field and was sent to the NIT, where it was upset by Robert Morris 59-57 in the first round. (Yes, that was the Robert Morris from the Northeast Conference and, yes, their fans stormed the floor for winning an NIT game.)
Kentucky ended the season 21-12 with Calipari bemoaning this team’s lack of discipline and how one or more players tried to “hijack” the program.
"This is humbling," Calipari said after the loss. "They think we're supposed to win 30 a year, 35 a year, go to the Final Four, win a national title."
Now Calipari is on the verge of locking up a class that could put him back on top of the mountain in a short 12 months. If his 2013-14 team can win the SEC and just get back to the Final Four (let alone win a national title), it would be the same as a golfer sandwiching a quadruple bogey between a hole-in-one and an eagle.
College players have until late April to declare for the NBA draft. Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein all came out after the NIT loss and said they planned to return. The wild card is the 6-10 Noel, who is rated as the No. 2 draft prospect in rankings produced by CBSSports.com’s Jeff Goodman.
A Perfect Storm
The multi-talented Randle could have plied his talents anywhere. But as the months went on and he had not made a decision, Kentucky continued to loom as a possible choice. So when he pulled the trigger and verbaled to Calipari’s ‘Cats the shock had worn off.
“I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system,” Randle said upon verbaling. “They have a lot of great players going in there, so you’re going to have to battle.
“I think like they did the year before, the team’s been a unit. I play USA Basketball with a lot of great players so I think I’ll adjust well. I think it’s the best fit for me. It’s where I was in my heart. I wanted to be at Kentucky.”
After dealing with an early season foot injury, Randle came back to average nearly 29 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks during the state playoffs. He led his team to a Class 5A state title.
His addition means there will be heavy competition at the four and five spots. Randle will be joined inside by the likes of Poythress, Cauley-Stein, Wiltjer and fellow 2013 signees Lee, Johnson and Willis.
“To be able to battle with those guys every day in practice is only going to make me better and help me prepare for the next level,” Randle said. “Playing with great players was a plus for me, it wasn’t a negative at all.”
The Harrison twins figure to come in and become driving forces in the backcourt, which suffered greatly this past season. Their father, Aaron Harrison Sr., coached their AAU team, the Houston Defenders, and was involved in their recruitment.
“Anyone who goes to a school like Kentucky is hoping for an opportunity to play professional basketball,” the elder Harrison said. “I don’t know everybody’s situation. I know our kids aren’t playing basketball to take care of their mom and dad. Maybe their situation is a little bit different.
“They liked the challenge that was presented to them by Coach Calipari during their visit. That’s why they chose the school.”
Aaron Harrison Sr. said his sons had long been looking at Kentucky – even before the Davis- and Kidd-Gilchrist-led Wildcats won it all last April.
“We had been to Kentucky twice before that team had even started practicing,” he said. “They just liked the set-up of where the school was versus where they live and all of that. The fans were into it. We come from Texas where everything is football all the time.
“The one thing they decided early was they wanted to go to a basketball school and not a football school. The other overriding factor for them was the challenge. Never once were they told, ‘You’re going to get this or that if you come here.’ ”
With so many one- or two-and-done guys in recent years, Kentucky has developed a reputation as a feeder system for the NBA. In three years alone, Calipari has had 15 players drafted with 11 of them taken in the first round.
But the elder Harrison said he and his wife were impressed with the overall picture they saw at UK.
“For my wife, it’s all about education,” he said. “She could care less about basketball. As a matter of fact, she cares so little about it she showed up at halftime of the McDonald’s game. They had to first to show in the past that they had taken care of kids and treated them right.
“They provided her with an opportunity to talk to kids and their families who had gone through there. Some liked it and some did not. That was an opportunity that was very valuable.
“For me, it’s an opportunity for them to reach their goals. They will play in a system that is up-and-down with tough defense. It’s a drive-and-kick approach that is similar to the NBA, so that will help. All they really want to do is win.”
Wiggins, already projected as the No. 1 pick for the 2014 draft, was originally considered a 2014 recruit. But he reclassified to the 2013 class and nudged Randle (and others) aside to take the No. 1 ranking in that class. He showed out with 19 points in Wednesday’s McDonald’s game.
But he made almost as big a stir on Monday, when he told reporters he was intrigued by the chance to join this all-star laden class at Kentucky.
“That would be crazy,” Wiggins told reporters in Chicago. “It would be the best college team ever. We’d have five or six top players going to one school, so the impact on college basketball would be crazy.
A Scout’s View
Over the years, any number of teams have excelled with freshmen leading the way.
Michigan’s Fab Five class, led by Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, went to the NCAA title game as freshmen in 1992 and again as sophomores in 1993.
Carmelo Anthony was a freshmen star when Syracuse won the 2003 national title.
Ohio State, led by freshmen Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, reached the NCAA title game in 2007.
And, of course, the Davis-led Kentucky squad won it all just one year ago.
Jerry Meyer, the basketball recruiting editor for 247Sports.com, has tracked recruiting for over a decade.
“I have been doing this for 10 years and nothing else really comes close to this class,” he said. “For us, it’s No. 2, 3, 4, 9, 11 and 13. Then the other guy (Willis) is a four-star. I don’t think anything historically compares to it.
“People talk about the Fab Five at Michigan and their rankings don’t compare. We’ll see what happens on the court. This group are Alpha dogs. They are really physical, strong-minded, strong and they play with a lot of pride.”
Meyer discussed what sets this group apart.
“Randle and the Harrison twins are very special,” Meyer said. “They can get their own shot and they can score. The other freshmen are highly ranked, good at certain things, likely to be pros, but not necessarily ready to come in right away and make it happen. These guys can all go one-on-one and get their shots or make a pass for somebody else to score. They are playmakers.
“The Harrison twins are unbelievable in the backcourt. But Randle gives them that physical guy who can go inside and score. He can also play outside as a four. He will get rebounds. I would not compare him to DeMarcus Cousins because they are different body types. He will bring stability to the inside game. Marcus Lee is like a jumping jack and shot blocker.
“As far as the Harrison twins go, Aaron is the better shooter and is probably more wired to score. Andrew is thinking create a play. He can also score, but he can get into the lane and throw a great lob pass or kick it out. He’s thinking pass maybe more than Aaron does. I have also seen Aaron play the point when Andrew was hurt or in foul trouble. It’s really hard to see a difference.”
Randle and the Harrison twins all come from Texas, where none of the Division I schools were able to reach the NCAA Tournament this year.
“I don’t know if it’s a trend, but the Texas schools definitely got beat in this go-around,” Meyer said. “I think it’s just the lure of Kentucky. Kentucky had been recruiting those guys. They just felt like it was the best place to go to be one-and-done and improve their draft stock.
“I didn’t even know the Final Four is in Dallas next year. That would be something if that happens.”
Regarding Wiggins, Meyer is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“The consensus is there just might be too many guys at Kentucky for him, but nobody has counted Kentucky out yet,” Meyer said. “Who knows? Some people think they could pull off the miracle class. I’m in the camp that there are too many guys and he will end up at one of the other schools he is looking at.”
Meyer figures that Noel will make the obvious decision to leave to become at least a top-five NBA draft pick.
But Meyer expects that anybody else who stays could have to accept a supporting role going forward.
“They aren’t going to get rid of those guys if they decide to stay,” Meyer said. “But they are going to really come off the bench. Willie Cauley-Stein would probably have the best chance to start at the center position, but there would be competition there, too.”