John Wall to UK: Is Big Blue Nation Back?
Less than two months ago, Kentucky was winding down a disappointing campaign, culminating in a loss to Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals. Their head coach was on his way to being ushered out the door, their two best players were weighing their NBA options, and an unrelenting fan base was sounding off at every opportunity to show their disdain for an uneven season.
Yet here we sit, just hours after uber-recruit John Wall announced his intentions to come to UK, and there's realistic talk of a national title next season. A team that started the 2008-09 season by losing at home to Virginia Military Institute will enter the 2009-10 season as one of the favorites to cut down the nets. An elite program some felt was on the decline has all of a sudden become nationally relevant again. A school that has had three head coaches in four years now looks to be the new hot spot of college hoops. A team that ended their season wondering whether next year would bring drastic changes now is wondering how to mesh all of their incoming talent.
How in the world of Shagari Alleyne did we get here??
The obvious answer is John Calipari, who has endeared himself to the UK fan base more in two months than former coach Billy Gillispie did in two years. Cal's vibrant personality, self-deprecating humor and outright honesty are a stark contrast to Gillispie, who often appeared uncomfortable as a public figure, and tended to sound condescending when being interviewed.
Of course it doesn't hurt that Cal knows a thing or two about recruiting as well.
The signing of Wall adds even more luster to a class that could go down as one of the best in history, as he joins forwards DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodsen, center Daniel Orton, wing Jon Hood and guard Eric Bledsoe. Add in the return of big man Patrick Patterson (who pulled out of the NBA draft), and talented wings Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, and you can understand the optimism in Lexington. And that doesn't even take into account the potential return of All-American guard Jodie Meeks, who declared for the NBA Draft but still could return to school.
Add that all up, and it's easy to see that the 2009-10 Cats will bear little resemblance to last year's team. With two five-star point guards in Wall and Bledsoe on their way, excessive turnovers should be a thing of the past. With Orton and Cousins joining Patterson up front, no longer will frontcourt depth be a problem. And with the excitement and flair of Calipari, the boos that occasionally filled Rupp Arena last year will be replaced with legions of cheers.
Of course, there are no guarantees in this game. While the talent of Wall, Cousins and their classmates is unquestioned, how will they all mesh? Can they all play effectively together with one eye on the NBA? How will Patterson, and potentially Meeks, respond to fewer touches on the offensive end? And what about the Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson-type players at UK, who will lose most, if not all, of their minutes to the newcomers? There's no question that the Cats are getting a talent upgrade, but for players like Harris and Stevenson, who played with pride and passion amidst all of the distractions, is a seat at the end of the bench a fitting reward for their perseverance?
While those questions will be hopefully answered over the course of the season, one thing we do know for sure right now is that the Cats will open the season in the top five, and will be expected to make a deep tournament run. They'll likely be the favorites in the SEC, and they'll be on the national pictures all year.
A potential starting lineup of Wall, Meeks, Miller, Patterson and Cousins has very few weaknesses, and with Liggins, Bledsoe, Orton, Dodsen and Hood coming off the bench, the Cats will be able to rotate fresh bodies throughout the game. They'll have speed, athleticism, size, ball-handling, passing, shooting, experience and defense, not to mention the adrenaline rush from 24,000 screaming fans at Rupp. They'll have a passionate coach who understands the public facets of his job, and the support of a town anxious to have a winner again.
So the pieces are definitely in place for a fantastic season. The Big Blue Nation may not be back yet, but they're certainly on the way.