The Kentucky Wildcats have a problem. No, not losing to Robert Morris – their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament by those damn liberal socialists already harpooned their morale. The problem is, in regular basketball circles, usually draped in positivity. They have too many good players. Or, at least, players worthy of playing time.
After yesterday’s loss to Robert Morris, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein all stated their intention to stay in school. We can attribute this, in part, to their lowered draft stock – more wins and more self-assurance probably would have swung the NBA’s opinion of them, and therefore their NBA decisions, the other way. But staying in school, of course, is their right, even if it’s not in line with the one and done recruiting mantra John Calipari has brought to Kentucky. Say what you will about it, that it’s slimy and backwards and undermines educational integrity, but it’s nothing more than a coach manipulating the rules in his favor. Calipari has transformed Kentucky into an NBA pitstop, a prospect factory for millions of dollars and bright lights.
In its latest mock draft, Draft Express had Poythress and Goodwin at No. 15 and 18, respectively; Cauley-Stein was projected at No. 10 in 2014. They’re NBA players, at some point in the near or distant future. In part, this is whom Calipari recruits: standout freshmen that will drink Kentucky Kool-Aid as a means to an NBA end. In return, Calipari will milk them dry for notoriety and revenue and wins. It’s the most over-the-table handshake in college basketball.
And that’s what makes this situation so weird. All three of those players were supposed to leave. They’re all supposed to leave, always. This is what allows Calipari to over-recruit each year and lasso players with promises of playing time and wins and the NBA spotlight, an irresistible combination.
Except Division I basketball teams are only only afforded 13 scholarships players each year; on this year’s team, 10 Kentucky players had scholarships. With the departure of seniors Julius Mays and Twany Beckham, and freshman Nerlens Noel (expected), the roster has 7 scholarship players – which, for our purposes, means six openings. With an incoming recruiting class of seven players – Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis, James Young, and Dakari Johnson – that means someone will have to get downgraded to walk-on to sneak under the 13-scholarship limit. The likely candidate, it seems, is former walk-on Jarrod Polson. Or, if Jon Hood and Polson academically graduate this year, as it appears they’re on pace to do, Kentucky will have an extra spot for either Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins or Dominique Hawkins, more uncommitted recruits considering Kentucky. Though, we should note that with Randle’s committment today, the giant cluster of talent at Kentucky will probably shuttle these guys elsewhere.
And this touches on a further problem: playing time. Four of Kentucky’s incoming freshman are ranked in the top 7 in ESPN’s top 100: six players are in the top 18. All of them, we suspect, expect to play. On a roster without Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein, Calipari would have the wiggle room to juggle the minutes. At worst, a few players would fill out off-the-bench rotation roles. But in 2013-2014, Kentucky is adding six rotation players to a roster that already sports five regulars. Meaning, there will be a lot of unhappy faces in Lexington.
Poythress, Goodwin and Cauley-Stein are all returning to improve their draft stock – their comments following yesterday’s game were grounded in NBA terms, a question of readiness. It’s a matter of when, not if. You might remember that Terrence Jones tried the same thing last year: return to school, get better. Except that’s not what happened. Following the 2011 NCAA Tournament, various mocks slated him as a top-10 pick. After spending another season at Kentucky – during which time Calipari’s latest batch of stars knocked him down from 3rd on the team in minutes to 5th – he slid all the way down to Houston at No. 18 in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Terrence Ross, Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress are the cracks in the system. One and done only works if players are done after one. It would be hard to call Kentucky’s recruiting last season poor – the players are good, and their NBA futures are not in doubt – but in that they underachieved on the floor, and did not fulfill their end of the NBA bargain, Calipari is stuck. He recruits every class armed with a certain expectation – that his roster will have holes, that the lure of the NBA will compel him to reload. Except now he’s stuck with too many good players. He’s stuck with too many egos and a situation waiting to combust. It’s weird to say, but he’s too talented a recruiter for his own good. Then again, most coaches would kill to have that problem.