April 24, 2018
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Kentucky’s title gives way to uncertain future

By COLIN FLY, The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It took 14 years for Kentucky to reach title No. 8. To repeat, the Wildcats’ magic number may be seven.

That’s how many players coach John Calipari could lose from his roster that helped him win his first national championship. Only freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer is certain to return from the regular rotation.

Now that the confetti has been collected and the banner unfurled at Rupp Arena, it’s time for the talent exodus to the NBA while fans debate where this team ranks among Lexington’s other title teams.

Kentucky loses seniors Darius Miller and seldom-used Eloy Vargas. The rest — freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones — are weighing their options on turning pro.

Wiltjer said he doesn’t “want to worry about next year right now. We want to enjoy this.”

As hard as they might want to, the Wildcats can’t just bask in their championship glow.

There are already reports Calipari might join his players on the NBA level.

The coach spent Wednesday quelling fans’ anxiety that he might be interested in another position — even posting a statement on his website that said, “Relax. Calm down. Enjoy the championship” and affirming that he isn’t planning to leave Kentucky.

“I give Cal the room to do what he needs to do and I enjoy working with the guy,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. “It’s a good relationship. It’s a fun relationship. It’s an easy relationship, and he makes it easy.

“He cares about the university and he cares about our state.”

The five players who all have decisions to make said after Kentucky’s 67-59 victory over Kansas on Monday night that they’d all take time decide their futures.

Both Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are projected as NBA lottery picks with Jones, Lamb and Teague not far behind. The sixth man, Miller, is also projected to be drafted late in the first or early in the second.

The NCAA says its deadline for players to determine their draft status is April 10, but the NBA’s early withdrawal date is 19 days later. Calipari has encouraged his players to take the time they need before they decide.

“For us to do this when we were No. 1 in the country, took everyone’s best shots and to come back and win … with four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior? This team accomplished that,” Calipari said.

While the team certainly will be remembered as the year Calipari’s methods worked, it’s hard to compare this squad with what’s widely considered the best in school history — the 1996 group known as “The Untouchables.”

Those Wildcats finished 34-2 and set the record for margin of victory — 21.5 points — in the NCAA tournament since the field was expanded in 1985.

The current championship squad finished 38-2 with a margin of victory of 11.8 points per game, but even adding up the biggest lead Kentucky had in all six of its tournament games, the average still wouldn’t equal the group 16 years ago that included nine NBA players, including six first-round picks.

“It’s two different teams. We beat teams every night by 30 points,” said Derek Anderson, who averaged 17.7 points before tearing a left knee ligament midseason on the ’96 squad. “Granted if they played together another two or three years and had two other guys that they could put in, they’d be better than us.

“Those teams just don’t stick together long enough to become what we had. We had Tony Delk and Walter McCarty as seniors. Imagine if they had Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as seniors — they’d be the best team you’d ever see in your life.”

While it’s a near certainty Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist will not return, Kentucky’s roster next year could be equally loaded when it comes together later this month during the NCAA’s signing period.

In November, they inked three of the nation’s top prospects — guard Archie Goodwin, forward Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley. But the two players widely considered the best in the nation are still undecided with Kentucky among their list of finalists in 6-foot-6 guard Shabazz Muhammad and 6-10 center Nerlens Noel.

Both plan to pick a school next Wednesday.

Kentucky also remains in the hunt for 6-8 forward Anthony Bennett, another player ranked among the nation’s top 10 prospects by various recruiting services, giving Calipari a chance to reload as quickly as he’s expected to lose players.

If he lands another huge class as expected, the Wildcats will be back in the mix for the title hunt next year at the Final Four in Atlanta.

“We’ve got to go out and recruit a group of young people and try to get them all together,” Calipari said. “We’re going to have some guys come back that will be good enough to help us win and some young guys, and we’ll go again.”

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