The scrappy No. 8 seed from Lexington finally saw the clock strike midnight on its Cinderella run when the Connecticut Huskies ended the dream in the NCAA national championship game Monday night.
Sarcasm aside, Kentucky’s appearance in the title game may have seemed like a foregone conclusion before the season began, but only the most optimistic (and somewhat delusional) Wildcats fans saw this coming on Selection Sunday.
While a loss on the biggest stage of the sport is never easy to swallow, the good thing for Kentucky supporters is that this program is almost always near the top of the college basketball world every season. Expect to see plenty of the Wildcats again in the 2014-15 campaign.
In theory, a team that makes it all the way to the national title game and uses a starting lineup consisting entirely of freshmen once it gets there would be more than set to compete at the highest level again next year.
After all, if we are working under this hypothetical, the whole group of freshmen would have a year of experience under its belt and have an even better understanding of what it takes to win at the college level. Throw in the realization that significant contributors Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress were only sophomores this year, and there is a borderline ridiculous amount of young talent on the roster.
Of course, if theories are meant to have exceptions, then Kentucky is the ultimate one in this situation.
John Calipari has established a reputation as the marquee one-and-done coach by recruiting the best players in the country and then sending them to the NBA after only one collegiate season. He was well aware that this reality will likely come to fruition again this offseason in the postgame press conference, via Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:
Calipari: "I think all these kids are coming back so we should be good." Shoots a look to let everyone know he's joking.— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) April 8, 2014
While it may be a Big Blue Nation fantasy to suggest that Cauley-Stein, Poythress, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson will all come back, it’s not completely absurd to envision a scenario where at least one or two of those players return to Lexington.
Will Kentucky return to the Final Four next year?
Randle will likely be a top-10 pick in the NBA draft, Aaron Harrison’s stock may never be higher after hitting so many clutch shots in the NCAA tournament and Young is the type of slashing scorer that so many teams covet at the next level, but perhaps Johnson, Poythress and Andrew Harrison would benefit from another year in college to hone their games.
Still, even if every player that received significant minutes for Kentucky this season goes to the NBA, the Wildcats will be among the best teams in the country for the same reason they always are—Calipari’s recruiting.
Kentucky is bringing the No. 2 class in the country to campus next year, according to 247Sports, and Trey Lyles, Karl Towns Jr., Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis will quickly become household names among college basketball fans.
Ulis is a talented point guard who can control games with his ball-handling and transition abilities. Booker is a shooting guard who can light up the box score. Lyles is a stretch forward who will be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. Towns Jr. is a center who will dominate on the block on both ends of the floor.
Largely because of this class, Kentucky is ranked No. 3 in ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan’s "Way-Too-Early Top 25" for next season. He suggests that freshman Marcus Lee, who was critical in the run to the Final Four, could return to Lexington and join forces with the incoming prospects.
Florida will lose much of its production when its senior-laden squad graduates (although the Gators have a loaded recruiting class as well), so the Wildcats could certainly make a run at a conference crown in 2014-15.
That would almost certainly be enough to give them a much better seed on Selection Sunday than the No. 8 one they received this year.
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