Expectations will rise for Kentucky once six star recruits arrive
CHICAGO — On Wednesday night at the United Center, Kentucky team West beat Kentucky team East 110-99.
Officially billed as the McDonald's All-American Game, the contest became more like an intrasquad scrimmage for coach John Calipari's future Wildcats, as a record six Kentucky signees were selected for the all-star exhibition.
With four players on the West team and two players on the East, the McDonald's All-American Game highlighted why many have Kentucky already pegged for a national championship -- if not a truly historic season -- in 2014.
"Why not?" said Rivals' second-ranked recruit Julius Randle when asked if the Wildcats could go 40-0 next season. "I don't go into a game expecting to lose. Why not go 40-0? They say it can't be done. Why can't we?"
Randle is the latest addition to what may very well be the greatest recruiting class ever assembled. The top-ranked power forward in the nation committed to Kentucky in March, joining Andrew Harrison (the No. 1 point guard recruit), Aaron Harrison (the top shooting guard), James Young (the No. 2 shooting guard), Dakari Johnson (the top center), and Marcus Lee (the fifth-ranked power forward). Did you keep track of all of that? All you need to know is that each recruit is considered a five-star prospect Three-star power forward Derek Willis will also join the Wildcats next year.
A recruiting class bursting at the seams with talent has boosted expectations through the ceiling for next year's Kentucky squad, but this is hardly new for Calipari. The recruits also know the pressure that awaits.
"They expect you not to lose no games or anything like that," Andrew Harrison said. "I can't promise them that, but I can promise that we'll play hard every game."
He may want to lower the expectations, but that doesn't mean Andrew Harrison foresees a loss in his team's future. "Of course not," he said.
With six players among the top 18 recruits for the class of 2013 plus the possible return of several players from last year's No. 1 ranked recruiting class, the Wildcats will have an abundance of talent that will relegate at least one of the highly touted 2013 recruits to the bench. In a group of highly competitive players, that battle could breed contempt.
"Practices will be probably worse than the games," Lee said. "They'll be more competitive than the games because everybody is trying to go all out for a spot."
However if Kentucky lives up to its potential, Lee said, that will pave over any possible hard feelings from being left out of the starting lineup. Winning will cure anything.
"I think we'll all be pretty okay with (coming off the bench)," the five-star recruit from Antioch, Calif., said. "Just knowing that we're starting greatness, we'll just be excited to be there."
Lee said he has already accepted that he likely won't be the star at Kentucky.
The excess of elite athletes won't be a new problem for Calipari, whose recruiting prowess, particularly with players eyeing a quick leap to the NBA, has often left him with more talent than he can put on the floor at once. Calipari's ability to manage and effectively showcase his surplus of skill gives hope to the future stars.
"There were times when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist didn't start," Randle said. "But he was the second pick in the draft."
Kentucky's 2013 recruiting class could be poised to get even better, depending on which school Andrew Wiggins, the top recruit of the 2013 class, chooses. Wiggins has narrowed his choices to North Carolina, Florida State, Kansas and Kentucky.
Playing time would be at an ever greater premium if Wiggins chooses Kentucky, but the players said they'd be happy to make room for him.
"It'd be like the Miami Heat or something with all the players we'd have," Young said.
The Kentucky recruits said they were leaving Wiggins alone to decide and not making serious recruiting pitches. But that doesn't mean they said nothing at all about what would await Wiggins at Kentucky.
"If I give him a good pass in a practice or a scrimmage or I throw him a lob, I say, 'Hey next year if you come to Kentucky, you get this all the time," Randle said.
Despite the praised heaped upon them, the members of the recruiting dream team know that plenty of work still awaits them in Lexington. Kentucky's 2012-13 team learned that the hard way. The Wildcats followed up a championship in 2012 with a first-round exit in the 2013 NIT at the hands of Robert Morris, a school with eight fewer NCAA Tournament championships and 43 fewer All-Americans.
"You can't just have the best players and just see what happens," Lee said. "To make a puzzle, you can't just have the best pieces; you need pieces that actually fit."
The failures of this year's Kentucky squad serve as motivation in addition to a lesson, driving the recruits to redeem the Wildcats' reputation and get the program back to a championship level.
"Everybody will come in trying to bully us next year," Lee said. "We'll be able to take that and give it right back to them."
As the point guard, Andrew Harrison has been entrusted to ensure next year's team avoids the pitfalls of this year. He said Calipari told him to be a vocal leader as the floor general even though he'll only be a freshman. Harrison's biggest task will be developing team chemistry among a group of players who are used to being the go-to player.
Events like the McDonald's All-American Game are critical early opportunities to start building that chemistry before the recruits all report to Kentucky this summer. Andrew Harrison dished out four assists for the West, and his twin brother, Aaron, added five more. On the East, Randle and Johnson controlled the paint to record a combined 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Beyond the on-court production, the players had the opportunity to learn about one other's games and what they do well. Andrew Harrison said he learned Lee was "a human block machine."
The Harrisons have little left to learn about Randle as the three Texas players have battled on the court since they were in fifth grade.
"Those were wars," Randle said. "After, I didn't want to do anything because my body was hurting."
Those wars, often intense, physical games, helped spark rumors that there was a feud between the Harrisons and Randle. All three have denied such a grudge exists. Randle said the story probably stemmed from each player's passionate competitiveness on the court.
"We hated to lose," Randle said. "I think that's where that whole thing of 'We didn't like each other' came from." After years of competing against one another, the players are looking forward to finally uniting at Kentucky.
The future Wildcats are not shying from the expectations. They intend to win a national championship. "And we let everybody know, too," Randle said.
Among the other McDonald's All-Americans, those proclamations are fighting words. With future players for North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Kansas, Indiana and Duke, among others, there are plenty of championship aspirations in the group.
"They can't really say anything," Randle said of the other players. "They try to come back, but there's six of us."