An NCAA tournament berth was a very real possibility for Kentucky at the end of the regular season. But after a 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, a promising recruiting class will only be able to look back on this season with regret.
After the leaders of last year’s National Championship-winning team left for the NBA, John Calipari reloaded with four players ranked in 247 Sports’ Top 50 list of recruits, including top overall prospect Nerlens Noel.
Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein joined the athletic big man, and the 2013 Wildcats entered the season as the No. 3-ranked team in the AP preseason poll. But disappointment soon followed, and losses started to pile up.
The Wildcats had a chance to prove themselves as a threat to make a run in the tournament, but everything changed when Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and the Florida Gators subsequently won in a landslide.
That was when Kentucky was written off. But no one told the young Wildcats.
A win against Missouri raised eyebrows, and another one against Florida to end the regular season turned heads.
But it was all an illusion, as the team’s inconsistency sealed its fate. Now Kentucky is 4-4 since Noel’s injury and failed to win a game in its conference tournament.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has moved the Wildcats into the first four out after the disappointing defeat, and although it was unthinkable at the start of the season, Kentucky is now a long shot to be in the NCAA tournament.
If there are no surprises and Calipari’s squad heads to the NIT, every freshman except Noel should consider coming back for another year.
All four of the marquee recruits still have holes in their game, and all would greatly benefit from another year in college. Currently ESPN projects Noel to be a top pick despite his injury, and has little to gain from staying in school.
The other three players are likely to be first-round picks, but each one stands to benefit from another year in college. CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodman sums up where all three are at:
Alex Poythress is soft and erratic and Archie Goodwin hasn't displayed the feel or toughness to be a go-to guy. Willie Cauley-Stein is big, strong and athletic, but he's also raw and a year or so away from being a star.
In the NBA, Poythress is just another exceptional athlete, and he doesn’t have the skill to succeed on offense or the tenacity to make a difference on defense.
Goodwin is just another skilled shooter; he is too small to be a dominant scorer and too selfish to be a top-class point guard.
Lastly, Cauley-Stein is just another big body, and he does not have the touch to score in the post or the savvy to make an impact on the glass.
Right now, all of these players have had lackluster college careers, and they are headed for more of the same in the NBA if they leave. The best-case scenario for all of them is to be rotation players.
But if they stay in Lexington and continue to work on their skill sets and grow, they have a chance to rise above mediocrity. This will start with their sophomore years, during which they will try to find the chemistry and drive that allowed the 2012 Wildcats to go down in history.
With improved skill sets and the confidence that comes from working relentlessly toward a goal and accomplishing it, all will have improved draft stocks, and their future NBA teams will be much more willing to give them a chance.
It is certainly possible that all three players will go on to be average in the NBA even if they stay in school another year, but at the very least, they will have a chance to leave an impressive legacy in Lexington.