Kentucky is one victory from celebrating John Calipari's second NCAA title in three seasons.
ARLINGTON, Texas (WDRB) – The University of Kentucky will
play Connecticut for the school's ninth NCAA basketball championship Monday
night. Then the signature faces of this team will flood the first round of the
NBA Draft the way they have flooded it the last four Junes.
John Calipari, Kentucky's coach, has never budged from his stance
that both days are remarkable – championship Monday and NBA Draft night.
In fact, after UK stuffed five players into the first round
of the 2010 draft, Calipari told ESPN, "I'd like to say it is the biggest day
in the history of Kentucky's program."
So you ask the players, guys who were just starting to think
about Kentucky when Calipari said those words:
What was the greater appeal in picking Kentucky over other
scholarship offers – the chance to win an NCAA title or taking the surest route
to the first round of the NBA Draft?
Their answers are certain to make opposing coaches tweak
their recruiting strategies. They will tell you that the reason they chose
Kentucky was not the NCAA title or the draft.
It was the chance to play for John Calipari.
"Since a young age, that's who I wanted to play for," said
Julius Randle, the Kentucky freshman most likely to be drafted first from this
"His style, his swagger and everything about him. The way he
runs his program. It's something I wanted to be a part of."
It's not the pursuit of a national title, which would be
Calipari's second in three seasons? Or the Final Fours, now three in five
seasons? Or the first-round picks, a dozen since 2010?
Nope. Like it or distrust it, the answer is the Calipari
brand, more appealing to the next generation of great players than Kentucky was
with Billy Gillispie, Tubby Smith or even Rick Pitino.
"He sold it to me as I could come in and compete against
great guys each and every day and get better," Dakari Johnson said. "Compete
for a national title and also develop my skills for the NBA hopefully some time
in the next couple of years or whenever it might be.
"He told me the truth. He told me it was going to be hard
each and every day. I'd have to fight for time on the court. That's what was
most appealing to me."
Johnson is not listed in the first round of most mock drafts
for this June. But that could change if he has a monstrous game against
undersized Connecticut Monday. He has started all five of Kentucky's NCAA
Tournament games, averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds.
He is also 7 feet and 265 pounds. Johnson is a better pro
prospect than Daniel Orton – and Orton was taken in the first round from UK four
Randle is a certain first-rounder. You can find Willie
Cauley-Stein, the injured sophomore center, and James Young, another freshman,
in most first-round projections.
The Harrison Twins, Aaron and Andrew, started the season in
round one. They played their way out – and have now done enough over the last
month to play their way back into first-round consideration, especially Aaron.
All he needs to do is roll highlights from the final minute of games against
Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Then there are the guys who will not be gone after nine months,
players like Marcus Lee, another freshman
According to Rivals.com, Lee had scholarship offers from 33
other Division I programs, including Duke, Louisville and Kansas. Marcus Lee
could have averaged 20 minutes (or more) at all of those programs. Have you
watched him run and jump?
Lee grew up in Northern California, a bright kid with an
older brother who works for Apple. He is the most analytical guy in the
Kentucky locker room.
Lee came to Kentucky. He has averaged 6.3 minutes. He has
scored 59 points, 14 in the NCAA Tournament. Even in a modest reserve role,
Marcus Lee does a first-string job of explaining why Kentucky appealed to him.
The NCAA title or the most direct route to the NBA?
"It was none of that," Lee said. "It was the fact that I
wanted to get better. This was the best place to get better, especially with
Dakari, Julius and Willie here. I was able to go against the best post players
in practice every day. That was the biggest thing that helped me decide.
"That's every child's dream to go to the national
championship and then go to the NBA. But that takes time. You have to be
totally sure about it and you have to go through all that work first.
"When I made that decision I wasn't even thinking about it.
I needed to find a place that would push me hard enough to make me work."
Marcus Lee found that place with John Calipari. So many