It’s been nearly a month since UK made their unforgettable NCAA tournament run and brought home the 2014 National Runner-up banner. A month to bask in the afterglow of the magical tournament run. A month to relive those 6 exciting games, with 5 incredible victories. And a month to speculate on what next season’s team would look like after all the players had made their decisions on whether to spend another year at Kentucky or move on to the NBA.
The Big Blue Nation was well aware the players might wait until the very last minute to announce their intentions. We also knew the “very last minute” was the NBA’s deadline of April 27th rather than the NCAA’s arbitrary “deadline” of April 15th. Literally within minutes of the final horn sounding on April 7th, the speculation, hand-wringing and worrying was in full force. Who would stay? Would anyone stay? Did we really have a roster full of “one and dones” with a couple of “two and throughs” thrown in for good measure? Were we going to be faced with yet another year of completely rebuilding our team?
We know the answers to those questions today, of course. Faced with potentially losing 8 key players from the 2014 tournament run, we rejoiced when 6 of those players announced they would be returning for another season at Kentucky. Sure, losing Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA Draft was a blow to the overall talent of the team. However, the 6 returnees, along with 4 incoming McDonald’s All-Americans arriving on campus this summer, the roster appears absolutely stacked. Take a moment and let it sink in: a total of 9 McD’s AA’s plus Willie Cauley-Stein? How could this possibly happen, especially since the national media would have us believe that Cal simply runs a “one and done” factory?
Willie Cauley-Stein was the first to announce that, although he seriously considered putting his name in for the NBA draft, he wished to return to Kentucky. Unfinished business remained for Willie. Having been forced into the role of cheerleader after suffering his ankle injury during the Sweet 16 match-up with Louisville, Cauley-Stein was on the bench during the remainder of the tournament, unable to help his teammates get over the final hurdle in the Championship game. He made it clear he wants another shot at the title and he wants to play “in front of the best fans in America.” Just like that, Kentucky had guaranteed experience and leadership returning for the 2014-15 season.
Shortly after Cauley-Stein’s announcement, we received the expected news that Julius Randle would be headed to the NBA. Then, again not surprising, was James Young’s decision to join Randle by adding his name to the NBA Draft. And in between those announcements was the news that Marcus Lee would be returning for his sophomore season. While it was not much of a surprise that Lee would come back to UK, it does speak loudly about the Kentucky Effect. A team’s 3rd string center who had seen limited playing time during his freshman season still needed to make a public decision regarding his status.
But it didn’t stop there; Alex Poythress soon let it be known he would also return for his junior season. Before that news had time to sink in, Dakari Johnson made his own announcement: he would be back as well, officially giving Kentucky the biggest team in college basketball next season. The Big Blue Nation was getting very excited for the upcoming season. Knowing we would have 2 juniors and at least 2 sophomores to provide leadership and experience to the incoming freshman class gave us every reason to expect a highly successful 2014-15 campaign. It just couldn’t get any better than this.
Except it did. And did it ever! Andrew and Aaron Harrison had left the nation hanging until April 25th when the long-awaited decision was made: they would both return for their sophomore year at Kentucky. Both players made it clear they had a common goal: a National Championship. To have gotten so close and yet fail to seal the deal left a flame burning within them. Returning to what was now a roster stacked beyond all belief gives them the opportunity to be a part of what could be one of the most talented teams ever.
But with that ridiculous amount of talent, leadership and experience comes another season of high hopes. Is this team prepared to handle what may be even greater expectations than what were held for the 2013-14 team? Will the freshmen learn to embrace Calipari’s teaching? Will they sacrifice self for team? Will they be their brother’s keeper?
On paper, the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats should be a dominating force in college basketball. But we know there is so much more involved in developing into that force: the players must be committed to one another, willing to give 100% and understand anything worth achieving is worth your best effort. Given reports of the incoming freshmen tweeting to current players to “come back for one more year,” I am greatly encouraged. This will make playing time a true competition, but they seem to embrace that challenge. That can only reap great things.
As for me, I shall not speak at all of expecting an undefeated season. I think our team will be very special and exceptionally talented. I also believe the leadership of our returning players is going to have this team coming together much more quickly than we’ve seen in seasons past. My goal is to savor every moment of the upcoming season. I don’t expect perfection, but I predict we will see greatness. It’s going to be one whale of a ride and I can’t wait.