The position of anti-Kentucky college basketball observers that the three consecutive national top-rated recruiting classes under coach John Calipari lacked meaning, due to not winning a national title, is now out the window with Monday’s win over Kansas.
Despite a constant stream of one-and-done players in the aforementioned recruiting classes, Kentucky captured the big one, partially on the shoulders of three freshmen that were ranked in the top-10 players in last year’s recruiting class in Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. All three, in addition to sophomore starters Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, will strongly entertain the possibility of jumping to the NBA.
The scary thing for next year’s opponents of Kentucky is that it has now been proven that young talent can win a championship, and the Wildcats may have a fourth straight top national recruiting class on the way in. Recruiting fans already know that Kentucky signed two McDonald’s All-American game participants in scintillating shooting guard Archie Goodwin and versatile forward Alex Poythress. Additionally, near seven-foot center Willie Cauley of Kansas is in the tier of players just outside of the top-25 nationally.
Kentucky’s worst case-scenario is that it will return only two known quantities in freshman face up forward Kyle Wiltjer and Jon Hood, who was a contributor for two years but sat out this season with an injury.
Looking beyond the surface, though, Kentucky has a former borderline top-25 prospect in lithe point guard Ryan Harrow, who sat out this season following his transfer from NC State. He showed flashes of his tremendous talent for a dysfunctional NC State team as a freshman, and will be handed the keys to the offense if Teague joins his older brother Jeff in the NBA. With a year of redshirt seasoning, Harrow could be ready to run and gun next year.
The reason for the optimism regarding Kentucky’s recruiting hopes is that the Wildcats are in the final three schools for the top two players in the country in 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Nev.) and 6-10 center Nerlens Noel of Tilton School (N.H.). Muhammad narrowed his school list to Kentucky, UCLA and Duke at the McDonald’s All-American game, while Noel similarly honed in on Kentucky, Syracuse and Georgetown.
It’s hard to bet against Calipari finishing strong on the recruiting trail, and there is a certain school of thought that if Muhammad wanted to commit to his presumed early leader, UCLA, he would have done it by now. The same could be true for Noel, who was unofficially considered a Syracuse lean, but reportedly has had Kentucky and Georgetown gain ground recently on the Orange. It’s safe to say that landing the two top high school prospects in the country is a possibility for the Wildcats.
Muhammad and Noel both have skillsets that draw parallels to the elite talent on the current team. Muhammad may not have the prettiest game, but like Kidd-Gilchrist, he plays with a constant motor and work ethic that is unmatched in the class. Noel, the top shotblocker in high school basketball, is better defensively than Anthony Davis was as a high school senior, though his offensive skills lag behind Davis.
Kentucky is also on the list of five for 6-7 yeoman power forward Anthony Bennett, who has drawn some comparisons to former UNLV star Larry Johnson. Bennett likely hasn’t progressed in his recruitment the way that Muhammad and Noel have, as he hasn’t taken an official visit yet. Still, Bennett is a legitimate top-10 talent in the 2012 class, and could complete a triumvirate that rivals the Teague/Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist trio, with Muhammad and Noel.
The NBA early entry situation still needs to shake out, but with two McDonald’s All-Americans on the way, and three more strongly considering Kentucky, the young ‘Cats could be back in the national title mix again next year, with the right incoming talent.