It took a little big longer than most of us expected, but Bud Dupree is →
It has been a looooooong but awesome weekend in Louisville and after writing over 1,000 words on recruiting (scroll down or go back on the KSR app to read it), the reality is that I am a little tired. So this will probably be quick so I can watch Veep (which is awesome) and read “The Sixth Extinction” (which is eye-opening).
— The big news is of course the loss of Jaylen Brown to California. Say whatever you want about the oddness of the decision (and it is quite odd) or the bizarre schools these kids are attending (Miss St, LSU, UNLV, Cal…sure thing guys), but it would have been nice for Kentucky to have grabbed one more player. It still isn’t over…the Cats have a chance with Jamal Murray but he must first decide to reclassify and then buy into the Kentucky system. There could also be a potential last minute surprise with a transfer or 2016 reclassification, but neither is assured. I still believe UK is one player away from being great but I also believe they can be very good as constituted. The Cats have two of the best Point Guards in America (who will play together), the likely #1 pick in next year’s draft, a Senior leader on a mission and a number of role players who have the potential to step up and surprise (Lee, Matthews, Mulder, Willis, Hawkins). If they get one more guy at the right position, they are good. But even if they don’t, this team will have more talent on the roster than virtually every team they play (only Duke and LSU would be close…and LSU may or may not have actual human coaches on the sideline). It won’t be like last year but it will still be fun to watch a team grow…and I will likely get few, if any, calls on why Calipari isn’t playing Willis or Hawkins.
— It was a good weekend for UK with the NFL Draft. While the Cats didn’t break any records with Draftees (they had two), it was an important step for the program nonetheless. The Cats got only their third FIRST round draft pick in 30 years with Bud Dupree and his positioning with the Steelers is great for UK. Playing linebacker for Pittsburgh is a marquee position and the Steeler Nation seems to love the pick. If he has success at a place that is also close to the UK recruiting base, that can’t help but be good for the Cats. Zadarius Smith goes to the Ravens at another marquee position, the D-Line for Baltimore. Lots of great players have come through those ranks and if Zadarius works and makes it happen there, he has a real chance for success with a great franchise. Throw in the fact that Louisville had a huge Draft haul (10 picks…which is really impressive for them but also means they just lost a TON OF talent for next year), and the Cats can consider the weekend a positive heading into the crucial third year for Mark Stoops.
— I think UK is close to completing its non-conference schedule for next year. We know about the Duke game in Chicago, Ohio State in Brooklyn, UCLA in Los Angeles, South Florida in Miami, Louisville in Lexington, a true road game in the Big 12 (rumored to be either Kansas or an Oklahoma school) and Eastern Kentucky in Rupp. I still think there is a decent chance a strong home game is still on the horizon as well, which would complete a pretty difficult trek for the new team.
— The UK guys were the stars of the Derby. We ended up in the same place as them often this weekend and they were the hits wherever they went. The Harrisons, Dakari, Willie and Booker were the toasts of the town and I saw them be wonderful with fans who took pictures with them by the bundles. Celebrities came up wanting to meet them as well, including Rob Gronkowski who introduced himself to the Twins and said he enjoyed watching Kentucky this year (and at the two parties where I was with Gronk in attendance, he seemed to enjoy most every part of the weekend). The best story may however be Karl Towns, who came to Ferdinand’s Ball on Thursday night and spent some time with me and Drew. I asked him if he was going to Derby or any other festivities. He said no, he was going home and I when I asked why he said, “I want to go to the Derby but I will be back in Kentucky a lot in my life and can do it then…but right now I just want to go home and spend time with my mom.” How great is he?
Finally, I hope you listened to KSR on Friday, because if you did, you would have hit the trifecta. The four horses we mentioned on the show ended up being the top four in the Derby and a couple of you told me you hit the Superfecta with all four (well done…we didn’t even do that.) I hit the trifecta for the third year in the row, but the payout was modest because I took the advice I gave (go heavy on one favorite on top and light on a second favorite on top) and my second favorite was American Pharoah. My group (they just give the money to me and say spend it wisely like a hedge fund manager) thus had a modest win, but left a ton on the table if Pharoah had been my heavy over Dortmund. Oh well, you live and learn. Either way, I hope you had a fun Derby on what was as beautiful a day as I can ever remember for the first Saturday in May.
Big week this week on KSR Radio…Republican Governor’s Debate on Wednesday and (maybe, not assured yet) Karl Towns hosting Thursday. Should be fun.
This group of young girls watching Jared Polson speak at a church recently are similar to how UK fans were in hoping to get one more recruit
There have been some strange recruiting decision moments in my time here on KSR. There was the time we had a cell phone held up at the Patrick Patterson press conference in order to play the audio live over my (virtually unheard) radio show. There have been the countless streams of grainy video from high school gyms across America, as UK fans crash all viewing parties with their sheer numbers. And there was the year that all of UK’s decisions were part of a reality show, that showcased the traveling circus that can be UK basketball. However few decisions for me were more random than the one Friday night with Jaylen Brown. I was at the Barnstable Brown party with Drew Franklin and about 25-30 UK fans, all waiting anxiously for the Brown decision. The group was outfitted in tuxedos and surrounded by celebrities but the only thing anyone cared about was where Brown would go. When the text came through that he had picked California, I announced it to the group and the look of shock was ubiquitous. HOW COULD HE DO THAT? I just shook my head and answered the same way I have explained the Newman, Zimmerman and other decisions this year with two words, “That’s Recruiting.”
It has been an odd string of losses for UK and it is clear that the continued punches to the gut have weighed on the fanbase. Just one week ago, it looked as if Jaylen Brown had virtually no chance of picking Kentucky, but then things changed. Kentucky moved up on Brown to such a degree that most around Lexington believed the Cats had him. The last Friday was a circus of activity. A national recruiting insider sent me this text around noon, “it is Kentucky or California…I think he has eliminated Michigan but don’t tell anyone because the kid doesn’t want it out.” Not telling anyone was easy (it was Oaks day and the distractions were everywhere) but the sentiment made me feel great. I was hesitant to eliminate Michigan since most of the world seemed to think they were the favorite, but if it was Kentucky and California, how could a kid from Atlanta, Ga who wants to be in the NBA not pick Kentucky? During the Oaks I got a text that the folks in Lexington were feeling good about their chances and that “everyone will be by their phones this weekend.” One national recruiting writer even went so far as to tell me he had the Brown to Kentucky story written, because he felt it was close to done. Then Friday night came…and the pick was California. Amazing.
At the end of the day, this much is clear. The platoon system killed Kentucky on the recruiting trail in the final weeks. What was a huge positive during the season, because it showcased how Calipari would take care of his kids and a group of players could sacrifice their individual interests for a collective goal, became a hammer that opposing coaches pounded UK with on the recruiting trail. One source told me, “Zimmerman, Newman, Diallo and Swanigan all four at some point probably had UK as their leader…and all four were barraged with the platoon talk all season.” Even though Calipari told the recruits that the platoon thing was a one time deal and told parents that people should look at it as a positive (he takes care of all his kids), the worry about playing time being sacrificed made kids who were UK leans turn into open recruits. After seven players declared for the Draft, Kentucky then found itself behind in recruitments that it once led in (Zimmerman, Newman) and forced to play catchup on recruitments where it had trailed (Ingram, Brown). Everyone assumed someone would bite…but slowly no one did as the characteristic which made the 2015 team so special was used to help weaken the crop that would make up the 2016 version.
In Brown’s particular case, another factor was at play. A source close to the situation told me on Sunday that “Jaylen Brown is one kid where the UK media/fan attention actually hurt UK’s chances.” According to the source, Brown expressed to a number of people the worry that the attention at UK was overwhelming and might be more than he would like to deal with. All season long, Brown has avoided the media spotlight…he didn’t do a ton of interviews, his people leaked almost nothing to the press and he also chose to make his announcement without any tv cameras or press in attendance. Instead he did it after a team banquet, and the only reason people knew it was happening was due to a school student fan section Twitter account (how random is that?). Brown’s choice of California was for a variety of reasons but those close to the recruitment said a big one was the circus that UK basketball was the year/has been for decades. “For most players, UK being on Sportcenter every night and having fans blowing up their twitter account is a positive…but Jaylen is one of the few that saw it as a negative.”
So now we are where we are. Jamal Murray is still on the board, but his status at this moment is unclear. He may not want to reclassify to 2015 and if he does, issues of him fitting into the UK system/shunning an Oregon program that has been on him for some time will still come into play. His situation should be more clear at some point this week. There is still always the chance another player could pop up (either by transfer or a potential 2016 reclassification), but fans should come closer to accepting the very real possibility that this UK team as constituted may be the final draft. A very good year is still quite possible. It requires a few variables to break a certain way (Alex be healthy, Skal totally eligible, Derek Willis ready to make a step up), but if those things happen, the Cats can still be very good. But absent Murray or a last minute surprise, Brown’s pick of Cuonzo Martin and former UK Assistant Tracy Webster (who was Cuonzo’s lead recruiter for Cal on Brown), may have made the roster what it will be…a group with lots of talent, lots of questions and the a vow to never use the word “platoon” again.
By Matt Jones on ©April 26th, 2015 @ 10:13pm
The young girl above met Willie Cauley-Stein at an autograph signing this weekend and the two pictures are just about the most precious things that I have ever seen (and that may be the first time I have used the word precious since the movie). She may not yet have an opinion about basketball recruiting but if so, then she would be one of the very few UK fans that does not. The talk on the lips of virtually all UK fans recently has been the same. Why hasn’t John Calipari closed the deal with recruits in the last two weeks of the Spring signing period? After the devastating loss to Wisconsin, many fans went through a period of mourning…I have had a number of folks tell me that they have avoided all Cats news, simply because accepting the loss is too difficult. But for the rest of us, our thoughts have moved to more glorious things, like the chance to see Kentucky on the court again and that means the team next season. Nearly every Spring sees a plethora of the nation’s top players picking Kentucky at the last minute in order to fulfill their basketball dreams, and we assumed this year would be no exception. But as of today, it hasn’t yet happened. So what gives? I thought a quick rundown of how we got here and what we may be able to expect was in order.
The seeds of the 2015 recruiting class began the day last season when Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison Twins returned. All three players were expected to leave and mid-season and when various factors brought them back, the entire outlook of last season and this recruiting class changed. The decision begat one of the greatest years we have ever had in this program but it also made 2015 more difficult, as the entire roster was not only full, but in flux. Two elite recruits took the “I don’t care who is there, I am coming” mantra…Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe. I love the moxie of that thought process and their confidence/dedication to UK will be showcased next season. But for the rest, Kentucky as a final option could not be determined until the day seven players stood up and said they were leaving. Thus a couple of players that UK likely led on in the fall (Stephen Zimmerman and Malik Newman) had their decision stretched out, and in so doing allowed other schools to make up ground. They did and the hometown B-level programs (and let’s be clear, neither UNLV or Mississippi State will even sniff the top 10 next season) became the choice.
DEVIN BOOKER AND DAKARI JOHNSON
Calipari was of course thrilled when Willie and the Twins returned and the effect on future recruiting was secondary. But as the year progressed, the mindset around the UK program seemed to be that those three plus Karl-Anthony Towns were certainly gone. Trey Lyles had always wanted to play for only one year, so if he stayed on the Draft boards, the assumption was that he would leave as well (and he did). However Dakari Johnson and Devin Booker were wildcards. When the season began, the notion that Booker would leave seemed silly, as he was almost certainly projected as a two-year player. But then he got hot, the Splash Brothers took off in Golden State (providing a model for a Booker-type guard in Klay Thompson) and his stock immediately rose. Still no one was sure what Dakari and Devin would do all year. I talked to a good source in late February who told me the working assumption was that Dakari would leave and Devin stay…but both could be flipped. And in the end that is almost what happened. Booker was much more certain in his decision and Dakari wavered before declaring for the Draft. But the UK folks who hoped they would get at least one and maybe both, were left with then having to make up for the loss of seven players all en masse, a scenario that seemed unlikely until the end of the NCAA Tournament run.
THE 2015 CLASS
If you have listened to me on the radio, you know that I have said this class is weird…and it is. A lot of guys have chosen schools that would have seemed like bizarre picks in years past, simply because of unique situations (Stepfather on the staff, father played at the school, wanting to stay in the same city with parents). However there has also been a change that is worth noting…more schools are making the recruitment of elite One and Dones in a group a priority. For the past 5 years, only two schools have tried to bundle One and Done players…Kentucky and Kansas. But spurred on by the success of those two programs, now Duke, Arizona, and UNC are doing it as well. Before, they might pick at a couple of guys here and there, but going for multiple players was not in the cards and UK/Kansas reaped the rewards. Now that luxury is gone…and every top kid is being recruited by all the blue chip programs. So far UNC hasn’t had a ton of success with this strategy, but Duke is becoming a player. So these top battles will become more difficult and while Calipari will surely win more than his fair share of them, the number of his opponents are likely to increase (this is especially true in 2016).
Coming into the Spring, it looked like UK would almost certainly get Zimmerman and likely would find a way to get Newman. Then Zimmerman got turned off by how good Skal Labissiere is (and he is REALLY good) and Ben Howland became the final piece at making Malik to Starkville happen. So UK was in some ways, back at square one. So what happens? Here is how the scene looks as of today:
Possibly the player that could fit a need the most for UK, Brandon Ingram was always going to be an uphill battle. He is from North Carolina, grew up a Tarheel fan and is in the state where the current National Champion is located. Getting him to Lexington is a chore…but UK has made up ground in the last few weeks. I am told that he is seriously considering Kentucky and when he makes his announcement at 6:10 tomorrow, I think the Cats have a fighting shot. I still expect his decision to be Duke…those that have followed him longer than I believe that it is what he will do. However Calipari has made it a race, after zeroing in on him when it was clear the Cats weren’t getting Newman (which was clear a few weeks ago). If he can pull it off, it will be a great come from behind upset grab.
UK has been all over the board with Diallo. He was Slice’s recruit when he came to Kentucky and at times, UK has led thanks to his time here. But then Mullin gets the job at St Johns and makes that a more plausible landing spot, Cliff Alexander gets ruled ineligible at Kansas and leaves an opening for him and Slice heads back home to New York, taking away UK’s best connection. Diallo is still expected to make his decision this week and he asked for the UK staff to make another visit a week ago, a good sign no matter how you look at it. I am not sure what he will do, but the Cats do have a shot. It isn’t a position of need necessarily, but if he comes here, then the Cats will have a great front line.
UK hadn’t even begun to recruit Murray until three weeks ago…now he might be the biggest prize out there to grab. Murray blew up at the Nike Hoop Summit and the working plan (that he would go to prep school next year) may have quickly changed. He is looking more likely to reclassify to this year and the Cats are doing everything to make up for lost time. He was the best perimeter player in basketball this All Star season and the Canadian now has to decide whether he goes with the school that has been on him the longest (Oregon, which has invested of time in him) or the shiny new power program that has arrived on his doorstep. UK is trying to get him to visit next weekend (he chose not to come to Lexington for the tournament with his AAU team this weekend because he would not have been allowed to meet with coaches or have a tour of the campus with anyone from UK during the trip)…if they are successful (which we should know by Tuesday), I like UK’s chances. If not, Oregon is likely the favorite. He is a potential superstar.
The wildcard of all wildcards. Brown might be the most explosive talent in the class. I have seen him do things on the basketball floor that no one else in this class can do athletically. He will be a superstar. But no one has any idea what he is thinking. It is assumed that Adidas schools are in the lead, with thoughts varying from Kansas to UCLA to Michigan. But Calipari has been going with him a long time and Brown has said that there is no place like Kentucky. Last summer Brown told me (and others) that there were people around him who didn’t want him to go to UK. But Calipari has been to see him many times and the UK folks haven’t given up. Will he go against his family and Adidas and come to Lexington and be a star (and likely give Kentucky 2 of the top 3 picks in next year’s Draft)? Most all the experts seem to think that is unlikely…but they dont’ know any more than the rest of us. He is the rarity in modern recruiting…an elite talent whose destination is anybody’s guess.
Mulder is on his visit to UK right now and leaves tomorrow. If he doesn’t commit to Kentucky within 24-48 hours, I will be surprised. He is a great shooter who will be a good role player for the Cats no matter who else they get. I asked someone to compare his role at Kentucky and they told me “think Darnell Dodson without all the baggage.” UK could use such a player next season.
So that is where we are…Calipari needed one of a few things to happen for next year’s team to once again be elite. Either Booker returned, Newman came, Brown surprised everyone, Ingram spurned his hometown schools or Murray became a rabbit out of the hat. The first two options have passed. Now we wait for the last three. As of now the roster looks like this:
PG: Tyler Ulis
SG: Isaiah Briscoe
PF Alex Poythress
C Skal Labissiere
6th: Marcus Lee
I put Poythress at the 4 because I am told that is where Calipari wants to use him most often next year, as that is his true college position. I expect the Cats to add Mulder and at least one other piece. Who that other piece is determines whether UK is just very good (which they still can be with the roster above) or elite. Cross your fingers.
By Matt Jones on ©April 26th, 2015 @ 9:13pm
How many of you have an online dating profile, raise your hand? Now include Tinder…now raise them again. Chances are if you are single and under 50, you either have had one or will have one at some point in your life, even if just for fun. And if you have, then the above map may be interesting to you. Vox.com looked at a study of dating profiles and checked which word was used more often in a state than in the rest of the country…and the winning word in Kentucky was not surprisingly, “Basketball.” Kentuckians use the word basketball in their online dating profiles disproportionately more than any other state in the country…and I bet if we looked more into it, the phrases “#BBN”, “Calipari” and “Reload” probably would have been on the list as well.
At least we aren’t Mississippi…what kind of word is “lookin” anyway?
I will freely admit. I didn’t know that Upper Deck even still made cards. But they do and since they do, one would think they would do it well. Not this time. The Upper Deck NFL Draft card for Bud Dupree is actually Jalen Whitlow. As you can see, the card shows a player diving for the end zone (which maybe should have been a clue for Upper Deck since Dupree is a Defensive player and likely has dove with the ball only a couple of times ever) and the player is wearing #8. Everyone knows that Dupree was #2 with the Big Blue and the player shown is Jalen Whitlow. Dupree himself noticed the mistake and tweeted it out, likely slightly miffed. Getting a chance to see yourself on a card is pretty awesome…unless the player that is presumably you is actually someone altogether different.
I had the same reaction when my first Kentucky radio card showed a picture of Dick Gabriel.
UPDATE: A couple of you have pointed out that it may be #2 on the card as well, as Whitlow also wore #2. That makes sense and would help explain (a little) the Upper Deck goof. But it is still a goof.
By Matt Jones on ©April 21st, 2015 @ 8:45pm
Chances are you probably heard about the infamous “Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Heist” last year, in which a number of barrels of Pappy mysteriously disappeared from the legendary bourbon distillery. Well rest easy my friends because it looks as if the crime has been solved. Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton held a news conference on Tuesday in which he said nine people have been indicted for stealing over $100,000 worth of bourbon over the course of the last seven years. The nine individuals included three that worked inside bourbon distilleries (one at Wild Turkey and two at Buffalo Trace) and together they hatched a plan that involved exploiting each bourbon’s security weaknesses in order to take massive amounts of the product. According to the sheriff, all nine met while playing on a local softball team, where they hatched the plan and formed a “criminal syndicate” to engage in the illegal trafficking of bourbon. Over the course of the seven years, they were able to steal bottles and a number of barrels, the conspicuous nature of the latter of which helped bring them to justice. As the sheriff noted, “how many people do you know that have bourbon barrels at their house?”
Because of the nature of the crime, most of the bourbon is ruined as security requires all the bourbon to be emptied from the barrels and only the unopened bottles could be salvaged. You can read more about the story below and the lesson from it is clear…the next time you are playing church league softball, check and make sure the opposing team is not hatching a plan to steal massive amounts of alcohol in between innings.
After Devin Booker’s interview on KSR, the funniest revelation that came out was that a fan licked his car at an autograph session in Northern Kentucky. Well now apparently that has become a thing. According to SBNation, multiple women are now doing it and then bragging about it on social media. Is it a thing that will continue? My guess is yes. We people are crazy
The sign above was found recently in the bowels inside Memorial Coliseum, where it was once displayed for UK athletes far and wide. This was the workout facility sign for UK Basketball back in the day and a reader sent it in to me recently after coming across it during a late night Memorial roam. The seven rules for weight training were simple, but also a sign of the times. One was required to wear a “t” shirt and shoes whenever in the building, but there were specifically no hats in the room, a requirement that might not fly these days. Enjoyment was not to be tolerated around the workout rooms as showcased by the “no socializing” rule, which in my view takes away the one thing I actually enjoyed about weight lifting in my (poor) high school sports days. And maybe most importantly, there were no cups or drinks permitted, a requirement that now seems almost cruel and potentially illegal. To not allow water in a workout facility would be extremely dangerous, but in the past the idea of cleanliness trumped the quenching of thirst/need for hydration. If you have any other great signs/mementos from UK’s past, please send them on…I always find them entertaining.
I spent this weekend generally avoiding as much contact with the outside world as possible. But a few thoughts are still on my mind:
— There is a chance, however small, that the end of the 2015 recruiting class might not be as great as we have been used to. The Cats are still involved with a number of top targets and have a chance with all of them…but it isn’t certain they will get any of them. Cheick Diallo has UK in his top 3, but the loss of Slice (who was his primary recruiter) might send him to St Johns (or elsewhere). Stephen Zimmerman has been hot on UK for 18 months and at one time I thought he was almost certain to become a Cat (you may remember me getting news about a recruit during my show one day that I got excited about…he was the recruit). He still has a very good chance of ending up here…but he also likes Kansas and UNLV a great deal and the confidence one of my sources had in him (a very good one) has waned in the last few weeks. Jaylen Brown loves UK and thinks it is the best program in America…but Adidas has been huge with him from the get go and could be the determining factor in him ending up elsewhere. Malik Newman has been considered a UK lean for two years, but the situation around him is a bit strange and I could see anything happening with him (including playing overseas). Brandon Ingram may be the best of the bunch and UK is coming on strong (I am told to keep an eye on him by someone that would know)…however getting him out of North Carolina, over the three Triangle schools that have been recruiting him for two years, will be tough. UK could end up with 2-3 of these guys or none of them…the situation is that fluid. The fact that you have seen UK inquire about a potential 5th year Senior from Charlotte and a former Alabama commit in 2015 showcases that UK is having to consider the possibility of missing out here late. After a great class in 2013 and 2014 (Randle, Young, Twins, Dakari, Towns, Lyles, Booker, Ulis, etc), the 2015 class has never been one that UK has felt totally solid in (as opposed to 2016 where I think they LOAD up). The three commitments so far are all great players (and in Skal’s case potentially the best in America), but also guys that were not necessarily given commitments. Normally UK locks in a couple of guys and stays solid with them from start to finish. This class hasn’t seen that and the one that has been the close (Malik Newman) is totally up in the air. The next few weeks will be the most fluid of the Calipari era…truly anything can happen.
— I will miss the loss of Slice as an Assistant Coach at Kentucky. I understand why he left…he is returning to his home town and will coach with a lifelong friend in Chris Mullin. Add in the fact that Mullin is a new head coach and will likely give Slice a lot of responsibility in making it work and the move makes sense. But Slice is my guy and an awesome person. He was wonderful to me during his time here and he genuinely loved Kentucky. His presence was a big part in getting Isaiah Briscoe and he has been one of the primary links on Stephen Zimmerman. Losing him will hurt in finishing up this class, but more importantly to me, I will miss one of the best characters I have met during my time following college basketball. On his first appearance on KSR he said he “wanted to be the Big Blue Nation’s Betsy Ross, helping sew banner #9″…we didn’t quite get there, but we got awful close.
— I didn’t see any of the Spring Practice scrimmage, but all indications are that the UK football team showcased much improvement on Saturday. This is especially true on offense, where Patrick Towles threw a number of gorgeous passes and showcased a deep ball that fans will love. People tend to focus way too much on individual plays in such a game but I go with energy and vibe around the program. It felt very good in Stoops’ first year to see the upward momentum of all things UK football. Last year was a slight improvement but I am hearing that this year has folks believing that major improvement is ahead this season. I hope so. This is a massive year for Stoops and a bowl is required in order to build on the momentum of this new era of UK Football.
With that, it is time to go to bed. I have watched a lot of baseball this week, which suggests that I am either (a) getting old (b) sad about the Cats and looking for a diversion or (c) open-minded and expanding my horizons. It is likely a bit of all three. My Braves are 5-1 and the new team I am following (the Reds because they are local) is 4-2 and I can already tell that being a fan of theirs involves heartbreak (how did they lose today…I hate Kevin Gregg). Tomorrow, I am back in UK land and KARL TOWNS WILL BE LIVE IN STUDIO at 10 am on KSR RADIO. Don’t miss it.
By Matt Jones on ©April 07th, 2015 @ 10:22pm
I am bummed about the game on Saturday and just now getting over it. But I do also come bearing some thoughts:
— After talking to a number of people today, I think its very likely that UK will lose seven to the NBA Draft. This isn’t a revolutionary thought, as Calipari said tonight on his radio show that he expected to lose “6 or 7″…so picking the latter of those isn’t crazy. After speaking with some folks today, I am now in the camp that the one still deciding is Dakari, not Devin Booker as I had presumed. These two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) are about Calipari meeting with his players and giving them their stock in the Draft as he sees it. Then the players make their decisions based up on what he says. From what I am hearing, Booker is projected towards the 15-20 area and that would be enough for him to go. Dakari I believe, wants to go but is making sure it is a smart decision. He is the one remaining uncertainty to folks, but most expect him too to go. This could change of course (many things do), but is what I am hearing now.
— I don’t blame any of the players for going. For most, it is the correct decision. Willie and Karl will be Top 10 picks…the Harrison Twins have probably maxed out their draft stock while in college (I think they both end up going higher than people think…especially Andrew) and they were hoping to be One and Done to begin with. I am told Lyles’ stock is higher than many believe (10-15) at which point it makes sense to go. Booker and Dakari are tougher cases…one can make the claim that Booker could come back and go top 10. But that isnt a certainty…what if he comes back and has shooting slumps or finds his defense exposed a bit more? Maybe then his stock doesnt do anything or even slips. It is a risk to come back for a little bit of a draft bump when you aren’t certain it will go that way. Dakari isn’t an assured first round pick but most of the things holding him back (athleticism and speed) are unlikely to change. Could he rise after a big year? Yes, I think he could. But I am not sure how much. His is the toughest choice and I think either decision makes sense.
— I am hearing that Ulis, Lee, Willis and Hawkins will all be back. Rumors of transfer from any of the last three I am told are incorrect. Alex Poythress is almost certain to come back, but is still going through the process of trying to gather information.
— UK has three players coming in so far next year (Isiah Briscoe, Skal Labissiere (who is apparently killing it at the Nike Hoop Summit) and Charles Matthews). I expect them to add 2-3 more, depending on the final decisions by Booker/Dakari. My guess is one big man if Dakari leaves and two guards/wings. In a perfect world, that is Stephen Zimmerman and two of the Newman/Jaylen Brown/Brandon Ingram threesome. But it won’t be clear until after all decisions are final just how UK stands with all of those kids. Backup plans likely exist but hopefully won’t be needed.
— For what its worth, I do feel better than I have in two years about Calipari’s future at Kentucky. I don’t think its certain he will stay here until the end, but I also don’t think he has a strong NBA desire as he may have had at points in the past. If a crazy offer comes, you never know, but whereas two years ago I thought he would give the NBA a go, now I am less convinced. That is good.
Take everything I say (and life) with a grain of salt. But those are my views as of now. More on the radio tomorrow.
24 hours later, it still sucks. The saying is that time heals all wounds, but at least in my case, the restoration process has yet to begin. Today involved sleeping late, eating a mediocre lunch, making a depressing early drive home from Indianapolis and doing everything I could to avoid any commentary or discussion about the events in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night. The loss to Wisconsin still hurts and my guess is that it will for a long time. Even though Kentucky had a season that was objectively historic and consisted of some of the most exciting moments of my UK basketball fandom, it also feels a bit empty this Sunday evening with the “1” in “38-1″ looming large in the record book. I want to be in Indianapolis right now, culminating a long Easter Sunday of celebration with by Big Blue Nation brethren, getting ready for a raucous live show Monday morning and building up to a game that might have been the most hyped of my lifetime…Duke vs Kentucky with a perfect season and a 9th National Championship on the line. What else could possibly have been better? Instead, I am sitting on a couch watching baseball (of all things) and just trying to avoid any mention of college basketball.
It is a reality of human life that all too often what we do is permanently colored by how it ends. I was once wisely told that the two most important days of your working career at a job are your first and last days in the building. Like some of you, I have had a good job experience blemished by the way that it ended and all memories of my time there unfortunately are seen through that prism. Like virtually all of you, I have had relationships end so negatively that it is hard to think of the many good times that proceeded the fall with that person without being jaded by the final crash that brought the two of us apart. The same is unfortunately true of sports fandom as well. If you are a hardcore UK fan, you may not recollect every game, but you can almost certainly remember how every season ended. Whether it was Dwayne Wade’s triple-double in 2003, Simon Says Championship in 1997, Missed threes in Syracuse in 2010 or Dale Brown hurting his shoulder in 1993, the way that great seasons end become tattooed on our brains and stay with us for years to come. That has always been my biggest complaint about the otherwise nearly perfect NCAA Tournament. The stakes are so large and the finality so stark that when it is over, it tends to completely engulf everything that happened before it. A season’s worth of games and memories can hinge on one bad possession, missed shot or blown call and that moment makes everything that happened before it pale in comparison.
This is especially true this year when this Kentucky team gave us the greatest regular season of my lifetime. Part of the reason for this is of course the play on the court. The Cats became only the second team in school history to finish the regular season undefeated, and their spectacular play will be the stuff of UK fan legend for years to come. The Kansas beating that began the season, the humiliation of UCLA, the dismissal of UL on their home court, the comebacks in the SEC, that great night in Baton Rouge, the run through the SEC Tournament and the heart attack-inducing victory over Notre Dame, all saw UK player performances of the highest level. But it wasn’t just the great play on the court, but the way we followed this team that made the entire year feel so special. Because the goal of “40-0″ loomed so large in the back of our minds, every single game felt like it meant something. I can remember pacing on the sidelines at Rupp for a January game versus Ole Miss and jumping in my shower out of nervousness for an otherwise meaningless Saturday afternoon in College Station. In most years, a random loss has little significance, but this year history loomed and thus every game felt like the NCAA Tournament…making the year more stressful but also much more exciting.
Then there was the coverage of this team, bringing Kentucky basketball to the national spotlight like never before. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the most covered UK team in history, with the Wildcats the lead topic for nearly two straight months on every ESPN platform imaginable. No matter the day, someone in the national media was talking Kentucky and their opinions, whether good, bad or simply trolling, made this season feel so much more important and meaningful. While you could still listen to KSR after a game to hear discussion, this season also saw UK as a perpetual topic on Mike and Mike, PTI, Around the Horn and profiles of UK players, managers, fans and everything Blue showed up in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and every other journalistic entity that touches on athletics. While it may have been originally said as a boastful crack to a rival about football, Neal Brown’s famous quote from earlier this year was truly correct this season. “We were the show” in college basketball and the entire season revolved around Kentucky and its quest for history.
Throw in all of that coverage and the ubiquitous nature of UK information drowning Kentucky from our local media (KSR included) and we could follow this team unlike any other in UK history. And then when we followed them, we found out that the players were as likeable as any we have ever seen. Beginning with the Bahamas trip, it became obvious that Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns, the Harrison Twins and all of the other players were as well-rounded off the court as on and that made us enjoy their play even more. It is great to win no matter what, but to do it when you know that the players wearing the uniform genuinely like each other, feel a closeness with the program and in their spare time make an impact on the lives of others…well that makes the victories just feel a little better. The entire season felt like a joyride that we were all a part of, each getting a chance to experience moments that would one day become a part of history. All year long I would have callers and fans say to me, “I will be telling my grandkids about this team” and this was the year that it really seemed it was actually true. A chance to pursue perfection with a group of kids that seemed worthy of that historic standard in every way. It had (to quote Aaron Harrison) the makings of a great story.
Last night however, that story ended and honestly, it doesn’t really seem fair. Some can debate the shot clock call, the late decision-making or a play that could have gone the other way, but the reality is that Wisconsin was just a little bit better than Kentucky on one given night. While I think UK is the better team, because of the NCAA Tournament’s cruel one-and-done format, that fact is irrelevant. Kentucky was the best team all season and won’t win the title, and that wasn’t the way this was supposed to end. What Calipari did this year was unbelievable…to bring this group of talent together, have them sacrifice their own personal glory for the greater good and then see that sacrifice rewarded…well that was how the story should have come to an end. This was the year when Kentucky would finally extinguish the Laettner demons and take out Duke in the final step to a season that would forever entrench this team, one that seemed so worthy of being remembered all time, into not just UK lore, but college basketball immortality. Three shot clock violations and one Sam Dekker step back three last night and now those dreams are shattered. We all objectively know that this team was still great and deserves to go down as one of the handful of the best to ever wear the uniform. But basketball is fickle and even though 38-1 is unbelievable and the historic nature of this team’s defensive efficiency and insane winning percentage will always be remembered, we will also unfortunately always recall the sad ending. One can’t think of Rupp’s Runts without Texas Western. Wall and Cousins’ season will always include Bob Huggins. And the Unforgettables never get a moment without at least a passing glimpse of Hill to Laettner.
Even as a grown man with what I hope is a reasonable perspective on life, 24 hours after the game I am still sad. This team had the best season of my lifetime up until the final weekend and accomplished things that will never happen again. I hope in the future I will be able to remember all of those great moments without allowing the last four minutes of a tremendous battle in Indianapolis cloud them. Rationally, I know I should be able to celebrate the unbelievable success without having it tarnished by the disappointing end. However realistically I know that’s unlikely and even though this team deserved college basketball perfection, the memory of the final loss will remain. This team deserved to cut down the nets and become a part of history. But unfortunately in college basketball and life, as Snoop once said on “The Wire”, “Deserve’s got nuthin’ to do with it.”
Last week, I was on a radio show in Omaha, Nebraska talking about this UK team and one of the hosts asked me a rather basic seeming question: “Are Kentucky fans more into this team than others of the past and if so, why?” I thought about it for a second and then suggested that this could be the most passionate I have seen UK fans about a team since the Unforgettables. That opinion probably isn’t unanimous, as we have seen a number of teams be embraced fully. The 96 group was idolized for their dominance, the 98 group for their ability to comeback from the brink, the 03 group for their teamwork, the 10 group for their rock stardom, the 12 group for their return to title glory and the 14 group of their postseason moments. But this team has something else. This team isn’t just celebrated for their amazing run to 38-0 and the quest to make history. We love this team because of something else that is more difficult to quantify. This team is just special.
Today in the Herald Leader, John Clay wrote a great column suggesting that fans should really take a moment to enjoy the last couple of games with this group. He is exactly right. After this weekend, we will never see these players together on the same floor. Karl, Willie and the Twins are almost certainly gone and it is likely that 1-3 others will make the jump to the NBA with them. Of course we are used to a mass of players leaving the program early every season in the Calipari era, but when this pack departs, it will mean a little more. In some ways, this is the closest to a group of beloved Seniors that we have seen since Calipari has been at Kentucky. Willie and the Twins may be a Junior and Sophomores respectively, but they feel as if they have been around a lot longer. Add in the fact that we watched the team through a long postseason run last year, a Summer trip to the Bahamas this year and now the tension of every game mattering during a quest for perfection and you get a team that feels like it has been with us much longer.
But even more so than the sheer longevity of our time watching them or their greatness on the court, this team is special because of the quality of the players on it. In my ten years of being around UK basketball in some form, this is by far the best group of young men that I have seen wear the uniform. If any one of these guys were to date your sister, you wouldn’t mind because you would know they would treat her well and likely would also be fun at holidays. Willie Cauley-Stein is as interesting a college basketball player as you will ever see, with interests that span far beyond the basketball court. The Harrison Twins are reserved kids with big hearts, who have overcome outsized and unnecessary criticism to rise to the top of college basketball together. Karl-Anthony Towns is so nice that at times he doesn’t even seem real, always looking to brighten the days of others no matter their status in life and doing so with a perpetual smile on his face. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are big-hearted Sophomores who reach out into the community and have given more to the city of Lexington off the court than they even have on. Alex Poythress was as loved as any player on the roster, and after his early season injury, his status in Big Blue Nation has only risen as fans clamor to see him return again and overcome his unfortunate adversity. And the Freshman, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles have had the burden of the UK spotlight lessened by the veterans, but have still risen to the stature of the uniform with great play and ever-improving skill. Throw in two Kentucky kids who love representing the state (Hawkins and Willis), a California leaper who brings together the social aspect of the team while also killing them with his athleticism (EJ Floreal) and a group of walk-ons that have become cult figures (Long, Malone and Lanter) and you have a group that is almost perfect in its makeup.
Now here this group sits on the precipice of history. An idea that was hatched by fans two years ago (40-0), crushed after the first difficult challenge, dismissed when brought up for a second go-around and then rekindled after the enormity of this team’s potential was fully comprehended, is now before us only two games away. If it is reached, this team vaults into college basketball royalty, going down as one of the best groups to ever put on a uniform. But even if the unthinkable happens and Kentucky falls to either Wisconsin, Duke or Michigan State this weekend, the pride the Big Blue Nation has in this group will not dissipate. This has been an unbelievably special ride, one that has been magnified due to the daily tension of staying perfect, but also enriched by a group that has not only embraced the challenge of history, but has made the fan base proud by their daily demeanor. There will be other great teams in the future and as long as Calipari is in Lexington, the pursuit of titles will never end. But there will never be another team like this, spectacular in their performance, but equally as impressive in their makeup. Enjoy this weekend. These are the glory days of UK fandom.
Some thoughts as we move towards Indy….
— I am more confident than others seem to be about this game on Saturday night. Of course Kentucky can lose, as Wisconsin is a great team and probably the best matchup against the Cats of any in the Tournament. But I like where UK is, think they got the worst game of the tournament out of the way and feel better about the matchups than I have before. The Notre Dame game exploited what is Kentucky’s real weakness on defense…guards who can beat you off the bounce and penetrate to the rim. Jerian Grant was a defensive problem for the Cats and their success on the offensive end stemmed from his play. I am not as worried about the Wisconsin guards…they can shoot but I don’t see the game-changing playmaking abilities that Grant was able to give the Irish. The key for me is Karl Towns playing Kaminsky well without getting into foul trouble and controlling Dekker as much as possible. Wisconsin isn’t really deep and if UK plays well offensively, they can’t guard the Cats. I expect a very good game but still think UK is a solid favorite if they do what they are capable of on both ends of the floor.
— I was really surprised by the TeamCast broadcast lineup. I like Dave Baker, Rex Chapman and Michael Eaves all quite a bit. They are all friends of mine and I think they are all very talented. Baker makes total sense for play-by-play and Eaves, while not known by everyone in the state, will do a good job on the sidelines after doing it for the Clippers for a number of years. But using Rex after his problems and the issue with the fans following the Tweet last year surprised me. As readers here know, I like Rex a lot and think this is a good chance for him. But it wasn’t met well by fans and showcases how little television executives really know about what a fanbase wants. My hope is that Rex can use this to rebuild some bridges, and I know the product will be good with these three guys. But what is also likely is that some fans who would have otherwise watched, are now less likely to.
— I have no idea what is wrong with Chris Webber. His argument about Willie today was silly and the one thing it will do is motivate WCS to play well this weekend. To act like Willie is not a NBA starter because he only averages 9 a game is ludicrous. Deandre Jordan (who Webber said Willie isn’t nearly as good as) averaged 7 a game in college and Nerlens Noel (who is the same age as Willie) only average 10 while playing eight more minutes a game. Success in the NBA isn’t guaranteed for Willie and I am not sure how great he can become…but he can play NBA level defense on a high plane immediately…that means he will see the Court from Day One and I don’t know how anyone can project that he won’t be able to eventually be a starter.
— Willie today became the 25th Consensus All-American in UK history. That is an amazing accomplishment for the young man and also showcases his place in history. To only have 25 since this program began, and have a player who was an afterthought in his recruiting class become one of them, is truly impressive for the kid and John Calipari. He is the first consensus All American ever to average less than 10 points a game, a distinction that should be a badge of honor. What makes it even more amazing is that I think Willie now will have a real case to have his jersey retired at Kentucky…think about it…one of only 25 consensus First Team All Americans in school history and potentially the MVP of the first team in school history to go 40-0. If that happens, Willie has a case, something I don’t think any of us thought was possible even one year ago…a great kid who has become a great player.
— Pat Forde is the worst. I know we all know this but he reminds me of it often. I ignore him when I can, but sometimes his awfulness needs the occasional acknowledgement. I did that on Twitter today with five tweets that illustrate my biggest gripes with him. Check them out if you so choose…and while doing it, follow me on Snapchat (kysportsradio) for behind-the-scenes video from the Final Four…plus our radio presence in Indy should be huge, including a potential special live show during the UK open practice. Should be much fun.
— I can’t wait for Indianapolis. Not only do we have the excitement of the 40-0 chase, but we also have one of the best Final Four fields ever and the close site means there will be UK fans EVERYWHERE. Saturday will be a circus, and the basketball is now being joined by the political issue in Indiana to mean that we may have one of the wilder scenes in a NCAA Tournament ever. The key for Kentucky is to do what they have done all season…avoid distractions. If they do that, they will be fine. This group has not gotten off track all year and I see no reason why it would happen now. What I do know is that I will be a nervous wreck, and like many of you, will feel like I have played 10 games by the time the Semifinal ends late Saturday night.
— I am giving away FINAL FOUR TICKETS from Guyonthecornertickets.comover the next three days on the morning radio show. Listen to win and get a trip to see all the shenanigans on Saturday.
With that, my picture of March (I hate April Fool’s Day):
Maker’s Mark’s first bottle to be released as part of a series to raise money for a new UK Athletics Academic Center will be released on Friday. A picture is floating around the internet of it and you can see the look above. Cool image of Rupp and a bottle that I know will sell out immediately
I am all for respecting your opponent. Wisconsin is experienced, solid on defense and can run as efficient an offense as any team in the country. Yes, they are a bit of throwback in terms of style, but not as much as you may think. They play slowly in terms of pace, but a lot of that is because of how they guard on defense. In short, they are a team your grandfather would like, but without being the kind of team that you would hate…and they are really good.
But their best player, Frank the Tank, does do this. I can’t tell if its awesome or awful…but I do love it:
A guy that dances like that simply cannot beat Willie Cauley-Stein…I refuse to believe it
So we will play the Mountaineers again for the third time in the last five NCAA Tournaments. On paper, it isn’t a great matchup for West Virginia (despite what Doug Gottlieb says), because speeding up Kentucky has been a recipe for disaster this season. But, this team is physical and could potentially rough up UK a bit. Still, when Charles Barkley was asked about the matchup, he laughed and then said, “Ernie, that’s gonna be a beatdown. West Virginia wants to run and the one thing you don’t want to do against Kentucky is run…it’s going to be a dunk fest.”