Kentucky Basketball: Could This Be the Greatest Freshman Class Ever?
“You mean I can be a lottery pick and win a national championship?”
As if John Calipari recruits weren’t already compelled to play for him, his victory in 2012 must make Kentucky prospects wonder, “Why would I play anywhere else?” His success from a year ago will earn Calipari some bonus recruits down the road, but it served only as a confirmation for the current incoming freshman class who had committed to Kentucky long before the national championship game.
Johnny Cal and his staff have done it once again and the college basketball world is left to ask itself a very familiar question, “Did he just bring in the greatest class ever?” Before I answerer that question, let’s first take a moment to admire what Calipari has done and is currently doing.
Calipari has earned a reputation for running “pro style,” fast-paced and athletic teams. While this is true, it is the way in which he goes about instilling this style of play in his young stars that allows him to continue to set the benchmark for what great recruiting can be. Saying “we need athletic guys” is a far more flexible approach than searching for “a quick point guard” or “a dominant presence down low.”
Unlike many successful programs that identify specific players to fit their unique system, Calipari seems to model his coaching around the players who rest at the top of the high school talent pyramid. This means—aside from general athleticism—one Calipari team may differ drastically from the previous year’s installment.
For a while, Calipari was known for his dynamic point guards. Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and John Wall can thank him for the hundreds of millions of dollars shared between them. Some believed the slashing point guard was Calipari’s trademark. The reality of the situation was illuminated last year.
Calipari was not searching for the best high school point guards. Rather, his focus was on obtaining the best high school talent and it was only by coincidence that for a few years, it was found at the point. While it is true that he picked up 2011’s top point guard in Marquis Teague, the real jewels of the recruiting seasons were Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It didn’t take long to realize that the focus of Kentucky’s team would be in the frontcourt.
This year, Calipari has gone ever further. Of the four incoming freshmen, not one plays the point. Kentucky’s new team will have shades of last year's crew, but don’t expect a clone.
So, getting back to the earlier question: Is this the best class ever?
It’s really a silly discussion. Comparing the recruiting process of today to that of the '70s, '80s or even '90s is impossible. For top high school talent, the process of earning a D1 scholarship seems to be starting earlier and earlier. The ability of a head coach to recruit has become as important, if not more meaningful, than his ability to actually coach. With the always-accelerating means of communication and self-promotion, the list of possible destinations for high schoolers—as well as the number of them competing for collegiate interest—has never been larger.
But it’s fun to play the game. Since when has logic interfered with sports hypotheticals? Before that debate begins, here’s a look at Kentucky’s incoming class.
Note: Along with speculative sports questions, another national pastime seems to be ranking college recruits. For the sake of consistency, all rankings were obtained from ESPN’s Recruiting Index.
Nerlens Noel, C, No. 1 Overall
One cannot help but draw immediate comparisons between Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis. Expect the star of Kentucky’s team to be, once again, a long, imposing center.
Like Davis, Noel is a dominating defensive presence; he averaged 10 rebounds and five blocks per game his senior season. Only time will tell how Cal chooses to implement Noel on the offensive side of the ball. As is customary, Kentucky will have loads of offensive talent so don’t be surprised if Noel averages only 12 points per game, which is what he was good for his final year of high school.
The only thing more impressive than Davis’ game last year was his fierce brow. Noel cannot offer such an unbridled forehead accompaniment, but do not overlook his pristine high-top fade, which has gone tragically out of style. Do I see a new game-day giveaway?
Alex Poythress, SF, No. 13 Overall
If Noel is the reincarnation of Anthony Davis, than Poythress is certainly Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2.0. ESPN’s scouting group described him as, “a terrific long armed athlete that does a great job running the floor and attacking the basket on the break and in the half court… he is best when getting to the rim.” Sound familiar?
Poythress will be one of the big-time scorers for Kentucky. He averaged 28.2 points per game on 69.9 percent shooting this past year.
On many occasions last season, Kentucky won because of defense. While this frequently started with Davis, the aggressive attitude of all five guys on the floor made them truly great. Poythress will contribute in this regard as well. He averaged 4.3 blocks last year to go along with his impressive offensive production.
Archie Goodwin, SF/SG, No. 15 Overall
Goodwin is a two-time Mr. Basketball and three-time all-state selection in Arkansas. Another impressive scorer, Goodwin was good for 25 points a game his senior year.
Look for him to develop a relationship with Alex Poythress, as they will be doing a good deal of the scoring for Calipari in the 2012-2013 season.
There is more attention devoted to the bigs this season than ever before on a Calipari team. Kentucky will need Goodwin to be a reliable guard. Goodwin is a terrific shooter and at 6’5”, he should be able to elevate over his defenders.
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, No. 40 Overall
It is hard to imagine that Kentucky will play a team that can match their size. We will see how Calipari utilizes his two centers, but I eagerly look forward to seeing both long, fast shot-blockers running up and down the court.
And, oh boy, can Cauley-Stein run.
Despite standing at 6’10”, Cauley-Stein played wide receiver for his high school football team. Wide receiver. He recorded over 1,100 receiving yards to go along with three blocked kicks (only three?) during his 2011 season. To learn more about his remarkable dual-sport accomplishments, be sure to read this ESPN article from October of 2011.
You always hear people talk about the difference between running in pads and running in gym shorts. He will be explosive on the hardwood.
Anytime you want to talk about great recruiting classes, the first one to mention must be Michigan’s Fab Five of 1991. And really, that’s where the discussion ends.
Michigan was able to recruit the No. 1 (Chris Webber), No. 3 (Juwan Howard), No. 6 (Jalen Rose), No. 9 (Jimmy King) and, just for fun, the No. 84 (Ray Jackson) overall high school seniors.
I’ll see your one top-10 recruit and raise you three. The odds are very slim that such a class is assembled ever again.
Calipari has come the closest of any coach to replicate the unreplicable. You need not look any further than last year’s Kentucky class to realize that the new bunch will have an awfully daunting hurdle to clear if they want to go down as one of the best ever. The 2011 class of Anthony Davis (No. 1), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 4), Marquis Teague (No. 8) and Kyle Wiltjer (No. 19) had more impressive overall recruitment rankings, won the national championship and featured the top two selections of the draft.
So, could this class be the best ever? If you’re looking at what they accomplished in high school, that would be a resounding “no.” If you’re looking at what they stand to accomplish, only time will tell.
The Fab Five may have made it to multiple championship games, but they never brought in the hardware (I see you, Duke).
The point is, though, we cannot really make comparisons between this class and any outside of the immediate past. Regardless, if Kentucky fails to perform in 2013, it certainly will not be for lack of talent. The same could have been said about last year’s class and nobody will care about the projections of this group if they are unable to match the success of previous teams.
Big things lay ahead for Kentucky, and when you win a championship, nobody cares where you were ranked coming out of high school.