When Kentucky added Nerlens Noel to its stellar recruiting class three weeks ago, the Wildcats appeared to have sewed up the top-ranked group of incoming freshmen in the country. However, that distinction was snatched away when UCLA landed power forward Tony Parker to join Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.
The race, though, is far from over yet.
Kentucky, which already has a superlative incoming frontcourt led by Noel, is among the finalists to sign the current holder of the “best remaining recruit” title: Findlay (NV) Prep’s Anthony Bennett.
A 6’8” power forward, Bennett—ranked as high as seventh among all recruits nationally, by both Rivals.com and ESPNU—would tip the scales back to the Wildcats and make them not only the nation’s top class, but also a serious contender for the national championship.
Make no mistake: Next year’s Kentucky team will be hard-pressed to match the excellence of the 2012 title winners. The 2012-13 squad won’t have the tournament experience or leadership of Terrence Jones or Darius Miller, and even the extraordinary Noel will have a difficult time equaling the performance of predecessor Anthony Davis.
Still, “not as good as last year” is hardly a devastating condemnation for a team that’s going to be loaded with impact freshmen. Assuming that Bennett (who’s also considering Florida, Oregon and UNLV) does join the Wildcats’ ranks, they’ll have a great chance of mirroring John Calipari’s equally freshman-heavy 2011 Final Four run as a No. 4 seed.
A front line including the 6’10” Noel, 6’8” Bennett and 6’8” Alex Poythress—not to mention the less-heralded 7’0” Willie Cauley-Stein—would make up for a multitude of other weaknesses. Even among the tiny supply of returning players, 6’9” Kyle Wiltjer could well prove to be a valuable contributor after playing just 11.6 minutes a night on last year’s loaded roster.
The obvious concern for the Wildcats is the relative lack of perimeter punch, although recruit Archie Goodwin will give them one bona fide star at SG. Calipari will be scrambling for point-guard options, with little-used Brian Long (a rising sophomore) or Jarrod Polson (a junior-to-be) likely to be among the prospects.
Given that serious uncertainty in the backcourt, it’s likely that the Wildcats will hit some rough patches in the regular season, with eight or nine losses far from out of the question. On any given night, though, there won’t be a team in the country that they won’t have a real chance of beating behind the size, speed and defensive instincts of that exceptional group of forwards.
Even if Bennett goes elsewhere, this is not a team with an insignificant shot at the Final Four. If they can bring Bennett in on top of the existing class, you can pencil them in for Atlanta already—and with a significant chance to cut down the nets once again.