BOZICH | Kentucky's Appeal: Championships, NBA or Calipari?
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 team.
"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 years ago.
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 players are.
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