Before the Kentucky tears even get a chance to dry from the first-round loss to Robert Morris in the 2013 NIT on Tuesday night, fans and players alike will have a chance to start looking towards what could be a dynasty in Lexington.
Five-star prospect Julius Randle, a Top-5 player in many scouting projections for the 2013 class and a member of the newly-crowned Prestonwood Christian state championship team, committed to coach John Calipari and the Wildcats on Wednesday afternoon (via ESPN).
It might be entirely too soon to start talking about the 2014 NCAA tournament, but Kentucky just hit the short list of teams that will be favored to reach Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., and the 2014 Final Four.
Randle will be a big part of what Calipari is able to do in 2013-14. After missing part of his senior season with injury, he returned to Prestonwood's lineup and helped a team that had a losing record when the playoffs started (11-19, according to MaxPreps) go 4-0 in the TAPPS playoffs and win the state title in the process.
He'll join a current collection of players and prospects tasked with both erasing a disappointing season and continuing the rich tradition of college basketball at Kentucky.
Say what you want about the 2012-13 Kentucky team—the negativity is warranted.
Lacking the kind of intensity, aggressiveness and urgency that allowed Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest of the 2011-12 team to capture the school's eighth NCAA tournament championship, this year's mixture of freshman and underclassmen was a complete disappointment.
There's no sugarcoating it.
Kentucky already had losses to Duke, Baylor, Notre Dame and Louisville by the time conference play started. Freshman Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein lead a talented group of 2012 recruits, but never seemed to get it together enough to be considered anywhere close to what the previous team accomplished.
When Noel went down with an ACL injury (via ESPN) on Feb. 12 against the Florida Gators, things really fell apart.
The Wildcats struggled down the stretch, and aside from late-season wins over Missouri and those same Gators, Kentucky was on the bubble at best to even reach the NCAA tournament. A loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament sealed those dreams as kaput, and that effort spilled over into the NIT road game against Robert Morris in which the latter wanted to win far more than the No. 1 seed.
That's the 2013 season in a nutshell.
Lucky for Kentucky, they get to start over with five of the best prospects in college basketball.
Randle joins fellow Texas high school products Andrew and Aaron Harrison, small forward James Young and No. 1 center Dakari Johnson—marking the second-year in a row that Calipari has gained the services of the nation's top center in his program.
If those five guys were the only prospects coming to town (there are others, including forwards Marcus Lee and Derrick Willis—via 247Sports) to help retool this team, that would be enough to put Kentucky on next year's short list.
If you listened to the current freshman talk about their status for next season, it's pretty clear that the disappointment of this season will factor into their decisions about the NBA.
Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein all expressed interest (via Jerry Tipton of Kentucky.com) of returning to school next season. Noel, who is recovering from knee surgery, shouldn't be considered a sure thing to bolt, either, considering the recovery time from his current injury would put him somewhere between November and December to be full strength (from a 9-12 month estimation of recovery).
Just for fun, here's a look at what the Kentucky rotation could look like next year if the current four freshman and seven Wildcats projected to come to Lexington from high school would look like.
|2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcats (Projected Lineup w/ no departures)|
|G||Archie Goodwin||Ryan Harrow||Jarrod Polson|
|G||Andrew Harrison||Aaron Harrison||Jon Hood|
|SF||Alex Poythress||James Young||Derek Willis|
|PF||Julius Randle||Kyle Wiltjer||Marcus Lee|
|C||Nerlens Noel||Willie Cauley-Stein||Dakari Johnson|
As we all know, championships aren't won on paper.
That's a fact that has plagued the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL, the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA and Los Angeles Angels in MLB, but there's nothing wrong at projecting a team to finish high that has some of the most talented players in the country in the same practices every week.
It's up to the team to rise to the occasion.
Granted, there's a good chance these current freshman head for the hills.
Goodwin and Poythress would be two of the best at their respective positions in the draft, and since you still can't teach size on the NBA draft board, Noel and Cauley-Stein would likely both be taken in the Top 15—at the latest. Some projections have Noel going No. 1 overall.
The disappointment of this season has been great. Coach Calipari and his staff won't spend much time lamenting the events of SEC play and the NIT for long, though, especially when guys like Julius Randle are still excited to come to the program less than 24 hours after a crushing loss.
The layoff will be long and painful for the Bluegrass faithful, but Kentucky fans shouldn't be sad for long. The team will have a chance to erase this season's disappointment right away in 2013-14, and should already be considered one of the favorites when the season starts in November.
Whether you like "paper" champions or not.