I suppose it’s inevitable for fans to speculate once the season ends. They wonder which players will stay, which will leave, which staff members need to be replaced, and the annual question of which NBA team is currently interested in Cal’s services. But as the player announcements have been coming out very slowly, the speculation is reaching new heights. You cannot escape it. It’s almost reached levels of silliness, with one group of fans proclaiming Randle would not have a press conference unless he was going to put his name in for the NBA Draft, and another group just as certain that the only reason to have a press conference would be to explain why he is returning to Kentucky for another year.
While everyone else is analyzing every nuance of every word spoken by every coach or family member or “source”, I am trying to refrain from such speculation. Regardless of the remaining decisions that are made by Randle, Johnson, Poythress and the Harrisons, I feel pretty good about the strong foundation our team has for next season. Besides another amazing crop of freshmen joining the team, we have some incredible talent and experience returning to provide leadership and guidance. And these returning players have the experience of fighting through adversity and succeeding when most thought all hope was lost.
Not surprisingly, we have Willis and Hawkins returning. Willis was nearly invisible this season, but he does bring back the practice experience and he knows what is expected of him. Hawkins was an occasional sub during the season, but was called on to play key minutes during post-season play and he delivered. Dominique has embraced playing defense. It is a source of pride for him to stop his man. That cannot be underestimated in my opinion. For new players, especially the super-talented athletes coming in, seeing that dedication to defense gets you playing time is an important message to convey.
The returning experience doesn’t stop there, though. Marcus Lee’s announcement to remain at UK for another season was not unexpected, but he did explore his options before making his decision. Lee had been used sparingly throughout the season but showed flashes of the player he could be. Described by Coach Cal as a “human pogo stick”, Lee has an incredible shot-blocking ability as well as the ability to be a great target for a well-placed lob. Lee’s coming out party could hardly have come at a better time: the regional final versus Michigan. After the season-ending injury to Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus had his opportunity to shine. And shine, he did for the remainder of the tournament, impressing the BBN more with each passing game.
Perhaps the biggest surprise thus far, however, was Willie Cauley-Stein announcing his intention to return to the University of Kentucky for his junior season. That Willie was potentially going to declare for the NBA Draft last year made it even more surprising to hear his decision to stay for his junior campaign. Of course, the BBN should be used to surprises from Willie by now. When Nerlens Noel tore his ACL midway through the 2013 season, Cauley-Stein had to step up to fill the void left by the team’s best player. Every game for the remainder of that season saw Cauley-Stein growing and maturing into a true impact player.
Willie’s return for the 2014-15 season may very well be one of the keys for the Cats to return to the Championship game. Besides bringing an incredible level of energy to the court, WCS has expressed his desire to keep improving his game. As he said when announcing his decision to stay, “I feel this emptiness in me like I still got something to prove and I still got so much stuff to work on in my game.” That is a winning attitude. That is a leader, one who knows what it takes to reach the top of the mountain. That is a player with whom a very strong foundation for a team can be built.
So the foundation is what I focus on for now. Yes, we can dream of how much greater this foundation can be if one or more of the remaining players who have not yet announced their decision choose to remain for another season at Kentucky. But even if all of them go to the NBA, the Cats are sitting in a good position to make another deep run next season. Those that leave will be missed for sure and their contributions to this past season’s history-making run to the Championship game will be forever remembered. For now, however, this is one Cat fan who sees a very bright future for our team. The foundation is there and Cal will build on it. It’s the Kentucky way.