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April 6, 2011

Kentucky awaits draft decisions, but set to reload

In some respects, the uncertainty surrounding Kentucky's program underscores the foolishness of trying to assemble preseason rankings immediately after the Final Four.

Are Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones returning to school or entering the draft? What about DeAndre Liggins? How can you predict the fortunes of a team that could be relying heavily on guys who haven't even begun their college careers yet?

Then again, why shouldn't we go ahead and assume Kentucky will have one of the nation's elite teams next season?

The Wildcats went 35-3 and hovered near the top of the national rankings in 2009-10 with a team built primarily around freshman standouts John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. Kentucky replaced five first-round draft picks this season and still reached the Final Four with freshmen (Knight, Jones and Doron Lamb) as the team's three leading scorers.

Now Kentucky coach John Calipari is bringing in the nation's top recruiting class for the third consecutive year. There's little reason to believe this group of newcomers won't make a similar impact.

"It's in the same type of elite category," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

Kentucky's incoming freshman class includes three of the nation's top six prospects in 6-foot-2 point guard Marquis Teague (No. 2), 6-7 small forward Mike Gilchrist (No. 3) and 6-10 forward Anthony Davis (No. 6). The class also features 6-9 forward Kyle Wiltjer, the nation's No. 25 prospect.

Meyer believes at least two and maybe three of those freshmen could crack the starting lineup for Kentucky next season even in the unlikely event that all of the Wildcats' current underclassmen return to school.

In that scenario, Meyer envisions Davis and Gilchrist starting alongside Knight and Jones in a lineup with Teague and Lamb competing for the fifth spot in the lineup.

Meyer believes Davis could end up making the biggest impact of all the Kentucky freshmen. Davis' arrival should help Kentucky make a seamless transition as it attempts to replace departing senior Josh Harrellson in the frontcourt.

"His skill strength and length are so unique," Meyer said. "Kentucky has gone a year without a dominant big man. Harrellson played great down the stretch, but I don't think you'd call him dominant. Davis has a chance to be dominant."

Davis has been the nation's fastest-rising prospect since a recent 7-inch growth spurt. He averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds and seven blocks this season as a senior at Chicago Perspectives Charter. He had 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks without a turnover in the McDonald's All-American Game last week.

"He always gets compared to [North Carolina forward] John Henson or [former North Carolina forward] Brandan Wright, but he's much more skilled offensively than those guys were at this stage, and he plays with more strength than Henson did at this stage," Meyer said. "He's much more skilled offensively, and he does what those guys do defensively in terms of blocking shots."

Gilchrist averaged better than 20 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a senior Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick, the same school that produced Duke star Kyrie Irving. He was named the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game after collecting 16 points and 12 rebounds in the East team's 111-96 victory.

"Gilchrist is the most physically ready {of the incoming Kentucky freshmen} as far as strength goes," Meyer said. "He's really a small forward who can do everything."

Teague possesses extraordinary athleticism and quickness, which allowed him to average 22.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds as a senior at Indianapolis Pike. Teague, the brother of former Wake Forest guard Jeff Teague, had nine points, three assists and five turnovers in the McDonald's game.

He now will try to attempt to continue Calipari's remarkable run of good luck with freshman point guards, a stretch that began with Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis and continued with Wall and Knight at Kentucky.

Teague has similar physical abilities as his predecessors, but Meyer also sees plenty of room for improvement.

"I think the great point guards are highly connected with their teammates," Meyer said. "They're facilitators. They're catalysts. They sort of create a synergistic effect for their teams. With Teague, you don't always feel that.

"Sometimes you sort of feel like he's out there playing and is really talented, but is he really bringing the four other guys together into a five-man operation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?"

A return by Knight would give Teague time to adjust, but recent history suggests Teague will have to learn on the fly. And it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Jones also left for the NBA.

Whether he has Knight or Jones, Calipari will figure out a way to build a winning team.

Rose, Evans and Wall left college after playing just one year for Calipari, yet his teams have advanced at least to the Sweet 16 each of the past six seasons. Don't be surprised if his team goes a few steps beyond that stage next season.

"The bottom line is Coach Calipari and his staff would love to see them stay," Meyer said, "but I think they fully expect them to go and they have their replacements ready."


Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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