Drama builds for Noel, Muhammad
Kyle Tucker can't say exactly when Kentucky fans shifted their attention from last Monday's NCAA title game victory over Kansas to the world of spring recruiting. But the Wildcats beat writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal has a pretty good guess.
"Probably by Tuesday morning," Tucker said.
The spring signing period always generates plenty of attention, especially in basketball-crazed states such as Kentucky. But the buzz is especially strong this season.
While 90 of the 100 prospects in the Class of 2012 have announced their college intentions, the nation's No. 1- and 2-ranked seniors have yet to make a choice.
Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10 shot-blocker from Massachusetts, is considering Syracuse, Kentucky and Georgetown. Shabazz Muhammad, a high-scoring small forward from Las Vegas, will pick between Kentucky, Duke and UCLA.
Noel and Muhammad will announce their choices Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET during a live telecast on ESPNU, ESPN3 and WatchESPN.com.
"Fans here are on their edge of their seats," Tucker said of Big Blue Country. "It's going to decide whether next year is going to be another circus."
Kentucky supporters have become accustomed to spring drama since the arrival of head coach John Calipari in April 2009. Within weeks of his hiring, Calipari had persuaded recruits such as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins to follow him to Lexington.
Calipari had another huge spring the next year, when he signed three players (Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb) who would lead the Wildcats to the 2011 Final Four as freshmen.
Lamb and Jones were starters on this season's national championship squad. They're also among the seven players UK could lose from its current roster. Five underclassmen are expected to declare for the NBA draft, and Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas are seniors.
"In most places," Tucker said, "a team that loses [so many key] players is probably going to be terrible the next season. This is one of those places where that's not necessarily the case.
"Kentucky has signed three guys already. If you add Noel and Muhammad and maybe [No. 7-ranked recruit] Anthony Bennett that's a crazy class. Those two guys are such special players. Noel is the best defensive prospect in the country, and Muhammad is the best offensive prospect in the country."
Tucker said fans have been shocked to hear recruiting gurus label Noel as a "significantly better shot-blocker" than Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. The Wooden Award winner led the nation with 4.6 swats per game in 2011-12.
"For anyone who has watched Davis all year that's hard to fathom," Tucker said. "If [Noel is] really that good, then that's really going to be something. Then they see Muhammad and the way he attacks the rim and scores, and they think, 'Maybe we could do it again next year.'"
Just as it is in the Bluegrass State, anticipation is also high at the other schools Noel and Muhammad are considering.
The loss of scoring leader Austin Rivers at Duke wouldn't hurt nearly as badly if the Blue Devils could add a player of Muhammad's ilk.
At UCLA, Muhammad would join the nation's fifth-ranked prospect in small forward Kyle Anderson. Bruins fans are hoping the twosome could resurrect their struggling program -- and the career of embattled coach Ben Howland. UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons.
The battle between rivals Syracuse and Georgetown for Noel is also intense. Michael Cohen, the men's basketball beat writer for the school's student paper, The Daily Orange, said Cuse fans could stomach losing Noel to Kentucky.
"But if Syracuse loses him to Georgetown, there will be a serious uproar," Cohen said. "That would be like losing a game to Georgetown. It would be a big hit."
Syracuse faithful are confident in their chances of landing Noel, who has certainly felt the love from the university's fan base.
When Noel showed up for the Orange's game against Connecticut in the Carrier Dome in February, he was greeted by a group of students who had taped pieces of black construction paper together on top of their heads in the shape of Noel's flat-top fade.
Cohen said Noel's high school coach has been a guest on several local radio shows throughout the past week. And anyone who follows Syracuse freshman guard Michael Carter-Williams on Twitter can see the numerous tweets he's sent Noel encouraging him to sign with the Orange.
"Anyone who is a fan of the team focuses on the next season pretty much as soon as the buzzer goes off in the last game," Cohen said. "The first thing everyone said was, 'If we get Nerlens, we can get back to the Final Four, or get close to it.'
"He's definitely on people's minds. There's a huge belief that he's going to come here."
The decision by SU center Fab Melo to enter the NBA draft certainly helps the Orange's chances, as Noel would be able to step in and play immediately in what would be a formidable freshman frontcourt alongside fellow top-15 recruit DaJuan Coleman, a 6-9 big man from the Syracuse area.
Of course, the same situation would exist at Kentucky, which will lose Davis, and Georgetown, where center Henry Sims is set to graduate.
At this point, though, no one seems to know what Noel is going to do -- except Noel.
"Gon shock the world!!" Noel tweeted late Monday night.
Such comments only add to the anticipation surrounding two of the biggest signing day decisions in recent memory. Tucker, the reporter from Kentucky, recently asked his Twitter followers to describe how excited they were about Wednesday's announcements.
"on a scale of 1-10, probably a 53," wrote @DrewTipmore.
Others went a step further.
"honestly I am more excited for their decision than I was the Championship game," @Agent_Face15 responded. "felt the game was in the bag this is big !!"
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2012 SIGNING PERIOD
The nation's top prospects, Nerlens Noel, No. 1 in the ESPNU 100 and Shabazz Muhammad (No. 2), will make their decisions live on ESPNU. Dave Telep and Paul Biancardi will be there to break down all the decisions and breaking news of the regular signing period.When: Wed., April 11, 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m. ET
Where: Signing Day Special on ESPNU