Harrisons' return creates loaded Kentucky team, immediate national buzz

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 25, 2014 

  • Projected 2014-15 Kentucky Roster

    Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Cl. 2013-14 stats

    Willie Cauley-Stein F 7-0 244 Jr. 6.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg

    Alex Poythress F 6-8 239 Jr. 5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg

    Aaron Harrison G 6-6 218 So. 13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg

    Andrew Harrison G 6-6 215 So. 10.9 ppg, 4.0 apg

    Dominique Hawkins G 6-0 193 So. 0.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg

    Dakari Johnson C 7-0 265 So. 5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg

    Marcus Lee F 6-9 215 So. 2.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg

    Derek Willis F 6-9 205 So. 1.1 ppg, 0.6 rpg

    Devin Booker G 6-6 205 Fr. —

    Trey Lyles F 6-10 240 Fr. —

    Karl-Anthony Towns F/C 7-0 250 Fr. —

    Tyler Ulis G 5-9 150 Fr. —

    Note: Next season's roster also is expected to include seniors Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone, and sophomore E.J. Floreal. All were walk-ons in 2013-14.

Anticipation of Kentucky's 2013-14 team inspired talk of the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, a 40-0 record and, thanks to The Wall Street Journal, the construction of a Death Star that would wipe out all in its path.

You know, a time when sober perspective reigned.

Friday's announcement that twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison will return next season re-inflated similar expectations for next season's UK team. Perhaps even more so.

"Yeah, I'd say," said Dennis K. Berman, The Wall Street Journal columnist who drew the Death Star analogy. "Because now you have literally all the elements in place: experience, talent, incredible size."

With the Harrisons returning, Kentucky will have nine McDonald's All-Americans on its roster in 2014-15 — plus Willie Cauley-Stein, whose 106 blocks got him named to the Southeastern Conference All-Defensive Team this past season.

Then there's 2013 Kentucky Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins, now with a college season's experience, and Derek Willis, a 6-foot-9 sophomore-to-be who once moved Coach John Calipari to evoke the name of former NBA standout Bobby Jones.

That UK will again be the No. 1 team in preseason polls is — ho-hum — a given.

When asked how he sized up UK's team for next season, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich texted, "Undefeated!!!!"

Not long after the Harrisons announced via Twitter that they'd return, the Internet buzzed with reminders of how convenient Kentucky could find its path to the 2015 national championship: Louisville, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Another ESPN analyst, Fran Fraschilla, called it "an embarrassment of riches."

Fraschilla, a longtime friend of Calipari, scoffed at the notion that Kentucky might have too many players. That too little available playing time will clog the mechanism in what might be considered UK's Death Star II.

"This plays into one of John's strengths as a coach, and that's his ability to manage players," Fraschilla said. "He'll create great competition. He'll have increased depth.

"And on the occasion a guy doesn't do what he wants, he can simply turn and look to the bench and point to somebody. He couldn't do as much pointing the last year or two."

Fraschilla envisioned a lineup of three guards: say, the Harrison twins and freshman Devin Booker. "And," he added, "two lottery picks at a time up front."

The front-court/future NBA lottery winners are returnees Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns, plus Cauley-Stein.

"All five could be lottery picks," Fraschilla said.

This time a year ago, the Harrisons were seen as first-round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. On Aug. 12, ESPN's Chad Ford projected Andrew Harrison as a lottery pick (No. 7).

Recent mock drafts have not projected either Harrison as a first-round pick. In statements released by UK, neither Harrison mentioned draft position as a factor in the decisions to return next season.

"I'm coming back for a second season in large part because last year's title run was special," Aaron Harrison said in a statement, "but we still have unfinished business."

He averaged 13.7 points, and made a name for himself in Kentucky basketball lore by hitting game-winning shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games: against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Andrew Harrison, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.0 assists, said he was returning "because I want to win a national title."

Calipari noted the Harrisons' improved play in the final few weeks of the season, an upgrade he attributed to a "tweak" and the players to the coach's decision to tone down his sideline intensity.

"Their postseason play was a result of the improvement they made all season and displayed what they're capable of doing on the court," Calipari said in a statement. "I look forward to having the opportunity to work with them during the summer and watch them lead next year's team."

Fraschilla suggested that not being projected as certain first-round picks probably played a role in the Harrisons' decisions to return.

"The NBA is pretty blunt about giving you feedback on where you'll be selected," he said. "In talking to NBA people, I don't think anybody really felt both Harrison kids helped themselves so dramatically to make it a no-brainer to turn pro."

With the Harrisons returning, UK said it can return 67 percent of its assists, 65 percent of minutes played, 59 percent of its scoring and 54 percent of its rebounds from this past season's Final Four team.

Kentucky's incoming freshman class, which is ranked No. 2 behind Duke, includes four McDonald's All-Americans: Guard Tyler Ulis, Booker, Lyles and Towns.

Which led Berman, the Death Star man and an unabashed Louisville fan, to talk aloud about the Kentucky empire striking back next season. "How can you view this team as anything but national championship or bust?" he said.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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