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April 19, 2013

Calipari has Kentucky poised for another title run

MORE: UK still OK atop rankings, while SMU moves in

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

The only thing left to do, really, is to start a slow clap for John Calipari.

The finalization of the Rivals150 for the Class of 2013 showed that the Kentucky basketball program will be welcoming the best class in the country to Lexington. This particular group could be the best of any class, for any school, ever.

Power forward Julius Randle, point guard Andrew Harrison and shooting guard Aaron Harrison are each the top-ranked player at their respected position. Center Dakari Johnson, small forward James Young and power forward Marcus Lee are all ranked as five-star players as well.

Each of the six are McDonald's All-Americans -- making this the first class in history to assemble six players from the prestigious event -- and all six are ranked among the Top 20 prospects in the country.

This is where the slow clap builds steam.

Starting when Calipari took over at Kentucky with the Class of 2009 though the current class, the Kentucky program has just two fewer five-star players signed (21) than Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA, combined.

In an embarrassment of riches, the Wildcats are still actively pursuing the top-ranked player in the Class of 2013, Andrew Wiggins.

The volume of talent being assembled leaves Rivals.com national basketball analyst Eric Bossi at a loss for explanations.

"If I could unlock what they are doing to get all those kids to buy in then I could make a lot more money as a consultant to other programs around the country than I do as an analyst," he said.

"It obviously starts with Calipari and his reputation as a coach and a guy that can get you to the (NBA) quickly, but it has to be more than that because the way he gets guys to buy into being a part of the team instead of wanting to go and be 'The Man' at other programs is impressive."

Getting players to the NBA has been a calling card for Calipari at Kentucky.

Of his first three classes that have been eligible to go through the draft, 11 of his 12 five-star signees have been drafted. Ten have been taken in the first round.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe each signed with the Class of 2009. All four were one-and-done players with Wall and Cousins being taken in the first five picks, while Bledsoe went at No. 18 and Orton at No. 29.

Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb came to Kentucky in the Class of 2010 and three of the four were Top 20 picks. Kanter and Knight were selected No. 3 and No. 8, respectively, after being on campus for just one season. Jones was the No. 18 pick after his sophomore season and Lamb was taken No. 42 in the 2012 draft.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer helped the program win a National Championship after signing as the Class of 2011. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were the first two players taken in the 2012 draft. Teague was selected No. 29. Wiltjer returned to the program to see his minutes, points and rebounds all double.

As for the Class of 2012, both Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin will leave after one season.

Now, this is where the chorus of applause hits a pivotal point. The six nationally ranked signees in the Class of 2013 are joined by point guard Dominique Hawkins and forward Derek Willis, making this an eight-man class.

How the roster is managed will be scrutinized by many.

Sophomore Ryan Harrow has announced his transfer to Georgia State, while Twany Beckham and Julius Mays have exhausted eligibility.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and Wiltjer have announced they are returning to school. Junior guards Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson have yet to announce their future plans, but with eight players signed, it leaves three players who were granted scholarships -- Sam Malone, Tod Lantor and Brian Long -- as team members who will likley return to walk-on status.

Bossi says that the roster will take care of itself, one way or the other.


"They have 13 scholarships and they will use all 13, that is for sure," he said.

"It is irrefutable the success in recruiting and on the court that the program is having. Other schools and other fan bases can't understand it. Kentucky is a blue-blood of basketball and he has momentum going in recruiting like nothing I have seen before."

Brett Dawson covers the team for CatsIllustrated.com and sees the steps being taken to ensure the prosperity continues.

He said that Calipari is the crux of the success but believes that what Kentucky is doing is explainable by looking at the professional ranks.

"John Wall and Cousins really got this thing started by wanting to come to Kentucky and play together," Dawson said. "Calipari will always talk about how Kidd-Gilchrest and Davis took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the team and were first and second picks in the NBA Draft.

"Kids see players like LeBron James wanting to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or Kobe with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and that group, and so it trickles down. Calipari had something like this starting to build while at Memphis, and when he got here it was just a perfect combination of timing, personality and location. He can sell himself and his basketball, while Kentucky is a presold product that kids dream of being a part of."

The point is most illustrated not by the elite athletes wanting to play for Kentucky, but by the lesser-talked-about Hawkins and Willis.

Hawkins is a three-star guard from Richmond (Ky.) Madison Central who was named Mr. Basketball in the state.


His other scholarship opportunities were Morehead State, Murray State, and Western Kentucky -- three places where Bossi said he would be the go-to player.


Willis was ranked No. 115 in the Rivals150 and chose Kentucky over Indiana, Louisville, Purdue and Xavier.

Each took the time to say that they don't mind their place on the board, even as others are making a big deal about it.

Hawkins was the last player in the class to commit but said that he plans on making an impact on the team.

"People overlook us but we're very good players, too," Hawkins told T.J. Walker of Rivals.com. "When we come in with the other six players, we'll show our stuff at Kentucky."

Willis was the first player on board with the program and said that he doesn't mind being lost in the shuffle.

"(I am) more or less an overlooked recruit, in a way," he said at the Derby Festival Classic. "I was the first to commit, then all that stuff blew up and the Harrison twins came along and made it a little better.

"I guess in a way I have been kind of forgotten, but that's alright. I'll show them what I can do and people will come along."

One place that each player will not be forgotten is on campus. Because of the passion of the fans, walk-on players at Kentucky are still treated like rock stars.

It is that atmosphere that Dawson believes makes a major impact on any player.

"The pride that people have surrounding this program would make anyone want to be a part of it," he said. "The fans are always fully committed to hoops."

Likewise, the administration is showing its commitment to the program.

Recently, the basketball facility at Rupp Arena went through a major update. Eight-foot showers were installed, the training room was revamped, a hydro-therapy whirlpool was added to go with a new team meeting room, a second coach's office, team lounge, food service area and an upgraded media area.

With the elevated exposure and upgraded facilities came added pressure. Expectations do not drop at Kentucky.

The season-ending loss to Robert Morris in the NIT may have signaled the end of a coaching era for previous head coaches at Kentucky, but Calipari has fans standing proud and more blue than ever.

"At some places, guys become too big for the job and then there are some guys that the job is too big for," Dawson said. "I think Calipari is showing that neither is the case here and this is a perfect situation for everyone.

"He is getting guys he wants and they are identifying early who the next group will be."


It is only a matter of time before the Class of 2014 comes through, and when it does, Kentucky will likely be on the top line in recruiting behind Calipari.

Before anyone realizes it, the slow clap will have turned into a standing ovation.

"They have done things that I can't explain," Bossi said. "Some people cannot respect that because Kentucky is a program that is easy for outsiders to hate -- with all the history and success -- but people who follow the game should - at the very least - appreciate what is happening there."



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