- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Kentucky is Kentucky, and UCLA is back.
Those are the two immediate takeaways from Wednesday night’s big college hoops recruiting announcements, when the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Class of 2012 -- center Nerlens Noel and small forward Shabazz Muhammad -- announced their decisions within an hour of each other live on ESPNU.
The final result? Muhammad chose UCLA. Noel chose Kentucky. Life in Westwood immediately got brighter. Life in Lexington remained almost unfairly good. And despite all the anticipation and hype, in the end, neither of these decisions was particularly surprising.
UCLA coach Ben Howland was long the favorite to land Muhammad. The Las Vegas native never revealed his intentions, but the recruiting rumor mill -- I’m hearing UCLA, it’s definitely UCLA, that sort of thing -- always seemed to peg Muhammad as a future Bruin. Even after Howland endured the most embarrassing moment of his career this spring, thanks to Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann’s evisceration, Muhammad’s family didn’t discount the program or wave it off. Indeed, the Bruins’ recent downward spiral was apparently an attraction.
“Knowing how bad they were the last two years, it’s a challenge to get them back up to the top,” Muhammad said.
That’s good news for UCLA, because he is right: The Bruins and their head coach are indeed desperately in need of a massive, wholesale turnaround in production and perception in the years to come. After disappointing, disjointed seasons in two of the past three years, fans openly revolted against the program in 2012.
Now, with Muhammad and fellow top-five recruit Kyle Anderson on board, as well as the Wear twins and still-promising, still-frustrating forward Joshua Smith, the Bruins have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Pac–12 title in 2012–13. In the meantime, athletics director Dan Guerrero will unveil a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, hoping this influx of talent can revitalize a fan base that tuned its beloved Bruins out for much of the past three seasons.
“Hopefully we can sell out Pauley Pavilion,” Muhammad said.
The kid gets it. The stink of recent Westwood frustration won’t dissipate overnight. But with his talents on board, Howland can still change his program’s dire narrative while he still has time.
John Calipari has no such problem. You saw the Wildcats in March: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were each the top players at their respective positions in the Class of 2011, and as they mixed and congealed with sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones (and senior Darius Miller), Calipari morphed them into one of the most dominant national title teams of the past 20 years -- and easily the most dominant in the one-and-done era.
That was a special talent haul, one that can’t easily be duplicated. But Calipari remains on a roll: He landed the No. 1 class in the country in 2011, the No. 1 class in the country in 2010, and the No. 1 class in the country in 2009, when John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe paved the way.
At this point, you can write it in ink each and every spring: Calipari will have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, or something very close to it. As such, it wasn’t even remotely surprising to see the top player in the country, Noel, commit to the Wildcats on Wednesday night. By the time Noel revealed his choice on the ESPNU set -- with the added flair of the UK logo shaved into the back of his now-famous high-top fade -- much of the social media world and those who follow such things were convinced the choice was Georgetown.
Silly people. Did you really think Coach Cal was going to go 0-for-2 tonight? Come on now.
Calipari was already off to a great start on the recruiting trail this year -- top–20 players Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress signed on last fall -- but he was still missing the elite, top-five talent that has become a regular fixture in his classes since his days at Memphis. The search is over.
Noel’s commitment is not only crucial in a vacuum -- he is a massive and athletic center who specializes in dominant interior shot-blocking -- but it rounds out UK’s on-court balance, too. Noel will anchor the post. Goodwin and Poythress will star on the wings. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top–20 recruit who barely cracked the rotation in 2012 (as good an indication of the Wildcats’ talent as any), will take on a much larger role. And NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, the No. 10-ranked point guard in the Class of 2010 who left the Wolfpack after Sidney Lowe’s firing last season, will take over the all-important on-ball role.
Noel’s proclivity for swats will immediately invite comparison to the departing Davis, and Noel may well be a better shot-blocker than the Unibrowed One. But beyond that, the comparisons may be a little too eager. Davis was a physical freak who gained his physicality late in his high school career, when he sprouted 8 inches but somehow maintained his guard skills and agility. He was transcendent on both ends of the court, almost from Day 1.
By contrast, Noel is a lifelong big man, one whose offensive game remains very raw. (Though he shares at least this much with Davis: In a world full of 6-foot–10 prospects determined to play small forward, Noel is more than content to play as close to the rim as possible.) Likewise, for as promising as Poythress and Goodwin are, it’s clear there is no Kidd-Gilchrist -- whose combination of NBA talent and selflessness set the tone for UK’s special 2012 season -- to be found here, at least as far as we can tell right now.
Not that Kentucky fans will complain. Just a week after the program’s eighth national title, UK fans just watched live as the top recruit in the country committed to Big Blue Nation. A repeat of 2012’s dominance is too much to ask. But with another batch of talent arriving in Lexington this summer, Calipari’s unique ability to transform disparate freshmen into coherent, disciplined teams and a wide-open 2012–13 landscape, a repeat national title run is hardly out of the question.
At least one thing is clear: With Noel on board, the state of Big Blue Nation remains strong. And very, very talented.
It’s true: Life is good in Lexington.
In fact, it only seems to get better.