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Kentucky's mass exodus leaves intrigue behind

4/10/2015
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Kentucky loses seven to NBA draft

Andy Katz reacts to the news that Kentucky will lose its top seven scorers to the NBA draft.

For all of the entirely warranted talk about Mike Krzyzewski's adaptation to the one-and-done (or is it "rent-a-player?") world -- an adaptation that Monday night led the Duke legend to his fifth national title in 24 years, by far the longest span in college basketball history -- Thursday afternoon provided a helpful reminder: These days, no one does the NBA quite like Kentucky.

Forget a whole news conference: At most schools, news of an NBA departure typically garners little more than a news release. When Duke's trio of elite freshmen eventually announce their decisions (and it looks like Tyus Jones is more than likely to join Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow in doing so), if they decide to invite the media down to Durham, the dais won't be more crowded than a typical postgame scrum. Presumably, the decisions will be announced individually. Presumably, each player would have ample time to explain.

Not at Kentucky. On Thursday, Kentucky coach John Calipari told the seven players crowded onto the podium next to him to indicate whether or not they would enter their names in the NBA draft by -- no, seriously -- a proverbial show of hands. More precisely, Calipari asked them to stand up if they were leaving. When all seven hesitated, Calipari looked down the table: "Really?" All seven stood. All seven, gone.

It wasn't just freshmen, of course: Junior Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomores Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, and Dakari Johnson all joined the unprecedented mass exodus, alongside freshmen Karl Anthony-Towns, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker. During the final weeks of the season, there was some thought Booker might stay behind to play one more year with backcourt mate (and close friend) Tyler Ulis. But he stood, as did Johnson, who later acknolwedged he was the only member of the group who was still "praying on" his decision as recently as a day ago. All seven of UK's top scorers, and 85 percent of its points from a 38-1 season, were indeed leaving Lexington.

And with that question answered, another one was posed: Where does Kentucky go from here?

As ESPN recruiting analyst Jeff Borzello detailed today Insider, Calipari already has another No. 1-ranked recruiting class lined up. Which, you know, duh. It includes five-star center Skal Labissiere (No. 3 overall) and point guard Isaiah Briscoe (No. 13 overall), along with four-star wing Charles Matthews. Briscoe is the top point guard in the 2015 class, and, as Jeff writes, "Labissiere might have the highest ceiling of anyone in high school basketball."

Nor is Calipari finished: A host of top-15 prospects in the 2015 class remain, have yet to make their decisions, and it's reasonable to expect that at least a couple of them were waiting to see what happened to the Wildcats' roster Thursday. Now, suddenly, a few scholarships have opened up, and UK will have zero issues filling them.

It should also have some major pieces back. Ulis might not have NBA scouts salivating like his teammates, but he is already among the nation's smartest point guards and peskiest perimeter defenders, and he looks set to anchor UK's backcourt for years to come. Center Marcus Lee has provided more than his fair share of high-flying highlights in the past two seasons, and a return as a junior could see him take on more than a spot role.

Then there's Alex Poythress. He is still weighing his options, but looks likely to return. If he does, he'll immediately become the rarest of Calipari-era birds: both an elite talent and a fourth-year senior, all at the same time. On Thursday, Calipari said that if Poythress "didn't get hurt, it would have been eight," referring to the season-ending ACL tear the forward suffered in December and the impact that injury had on his draft status.

Last spring, Poythress' decision to return was a small part of what made this Kentucky team different. The Wildcats already had a loaded recruiting class on deck, but more of the prior season's players -- the Harrisons, Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Poythress -- turned down NBA entries in lieu of a chance to chase a championship than even Calipari expected. What resulted was a once-in-a-decade collection of talent, one that began the season 38-0 and lost on the final weekend of the season at the hands of a hyper-hot Wisconsin offense.

A year later, it is the departures that are unprecedented. Even crazier, perhaps, is the fact that Calipari will lose his top seven 2014-15 scorers to the NBA draft and -- depending on how many more top recruits he lands in the coming weeks -- might end up ranked No. 1 in the first 2015-16 preseason poll anyway. That status is far less guaranteed, and more reliant on current unknowns, than it was in 2014. But that it is possible at all tells you everything you need to know.

On Thursday, when UK's outgoing players were asked to describe their decisions, Aaron Harrison took the microphone first.

"I think this is all of our dreams," Harrison said. "We just want to chase our dreams, really."

From there it went, one by one, down the table, each player repeating some variation of the phrase "chase our dreams." By the time the microphone had moved from Harrison to Towns to Booker to Johnson -- who opened with "like these three said" and closed with "everybody up here just wants to chase their dreams and reach their goals," the assembled media, and the players, were laughing at the awkward repetition. It took until Cauley-Stein, the last man on the left, before someone self-consciously avoided using the phrase.

It was funny and telling. At any other program, or any other NBA announcement, no one would have noticed how similar the message was. There would have been few -- if any -- other players to repeat it.

Only at Kentucky would seven guys, each of them truly launching the start of their childhood dreams, get midway through an assembly line exodus before realizing they were stepping on each others' lines.