UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky next season? Save your concern for a program that needs it

Kentucky signees (from left) Sacha Killeya-Jones, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox enjoyed each other’s company in Chicago the week of the McDonald’s All-American Game in March.
Kentucky signees (from left) Sacha Killeya-Jones, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox enjoyed each other’s company in Chicago the week of the McDonald’s All-American Game in March. broberts@herald-leader.com

Marques Bolden committed to Duke rather than Kentucky. Marcus Lee announced he will transfer away. First-team All-American Tyler Ulis entered the NBA Draft. So did projected lottery pick Jamal Murray and expected first-rounder Skal Labissiere.

No player who averaged double figures last season will return. The top returning rim protector, based on blocks last season, is Isaac Humphries, who rejected 16 shots (or less than one per game).

Cause for UK fan concern?

The mind goes back to 2003. Kentucky was about to play and ultimately beat Utah for the fifth time in the NCAA Tournament in 11 years. The day before the game, a reporter suggested to Utah Coach Rick Majerus that Kentucky did not have its usual assortment of stars.

To which Majerus dryly said, “I don’t think anybody is going to arrange a telethon to help Kentucky get players.”

That sums up, at this ultra early stage, UK’s outlook for next season.

“They should be really good,” 247Sports recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said of next season’s Cats. Because of Bolden’s decision, “not quite as deep,” Meyer said. “But still better than most any lineup in the country.”

Added ESPN’s Jay Bilas, “They can have a championship team. They’re contenders again.”

The latest star-studded freshman class should quell any fan anxiety. Each newcomer is a top-25 national prospect as rated by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247.

When asked about the five incoming freshmen, Bilas said, “Well, they’re all pros.”

Guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk figure to join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe in a reconstituted Three Tenors perimeter.

Meyer saw Fox filling the Ulis role of pass-first point guard who can keep defenses honest by scoring.

“Fox shares some of those same qualities in being an intangible guy and unifier,” Meyer said. “Someone who can be a distributor and catalyst for team success.”

Monk is an “uber athlete,” Meyer said. “Really wired to score.”

Bilas called Fox “one of the best defensive guards, if not the best defensive guard in the country.”

Briscoe returns as a highly competitive “scrapper,” as Meyer put it.

When asked to compare Briscoe-Fox-Monk to Ulis-Murray-Briscoe, Meyer hesitated.

“The bar was set really high last year,” he said. “I don’t think you’d say you expect them to be as good. But I expect Kentucky to have an elite-type backcourt. One of the best in the country.”

Kentucky’s “bigs” last season came up small, the primary reason the Cats exited the NCAA Tournament in the first weekend.

“No muscle, no strength, no physicality, no rebounding,” Meyer said. “So it’s going to be better in that regard. I think it’d be hard for Kentucky’s frontcourt not to be better than it was last year.”

Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones give UK three “bigs” to go with Tai Wynyard and Humphries.

Bilas called Adebayo “one of the best rebounders and shot blockers” in the class. “He’s a real presence on the floor.”

Despite Bolden’s commitment to Duke, Rivals and ESPN kept Kentucky at No. 1 in their ratings of recruiting classes. Scout and 247Sports elevated Duke to No. 1.

Duke next season? “They’re going to be great,” Meyer said. “Their ranking is completely justified. Villanova will be extremely good. So there’s going to be a lot of really good teams.”

Kentucky will be one of them.

Cal to Cal?

Quoting sources, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman said California was the favorite to land Marcus Lee, who announced last week that he would transfer from Kentucky.

Cal Berkeley meets Lee’s stated objective of getting closer to his Antioch, Calif., home. Berkeley is 36 miles west of Antioch.

Here’s how Paul Biancardi, one of ESPN’s recruiting gurus, saw Lee’s commitment to Kentucky’s Cal (John Calipari) rather than California’s Cal three years ago:

“One more piece to an awfully impressive puzzle ... when ESPN 100 senior power forward Marcus Lee picked Kentucky over California.”

Lee, whom Biancardi ranked No. 28 in the Class of 2013, was UK’s fourth top 30 recruit. Others were Andrew Harrison (No. 2), Aaron Harrison (No. 4) and James Young (No. 5).

For what it’s worth, none has made a significant mark in the NBA.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas applauded Lee’s decision to return to college, albeit at a new school.

“I thought it was a smart decision for Marcus to take his name out of the draft because I don’t think he was going to be drafted,” Bilas said.

Poythress update

All the hubbub this spring about the NBA Draft, NBA Combine, returning to Kentucky and transferring from Kentucky has left one player overlooked: Alex Poythress. You know, the senior.

That says a lot about the current state of college basketball and UK’s approach.

As for Kentucky’s lone senior, ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford said he recently watched Poythress work out in a session arranged by several NBA teams.

“The one thing that really stood out to me in that workout was he seems to have all his explosiveness back,” Ford said. “Typically, with the torn ACL, the first season back is never 100 percent. It takes, really, a full two years or close to two years to really get that athleticism to where it was before.

“You really saw it in that workout. He was as explosive as I’ve ever seen him both laterally and vertically.”

If Poythress makes the NBA, he’ll have to do it as a defensive specialist, Ford said.

“As a multi-position defender,” Ford said, “that’s going to use athleticism and length to guard.”

Sportsmanship 2.0

Draymond Green kicks Steven Adams in the groin.

A teammate standing next to an opponent inadvertently backhands LeBron James in the face. James, who is 6-8 and weighs 250 pounds, recoils. Then, after a pause, he stumbles backward dramatically, falling to the floor in a sequence that all but shouts to the referees to call a (phantom) foul.

Again and again, sportsmanship seems like a quaint relic from another time.

So, once more, perspective is sought from Mid-South Conference commissioner Eric Ward, who as athletic director at Georgetown College headed a quixotic effort to teach character through sports.

What do these incidents from this year’s NBA playoffs say about sportsmanship?

“Is there any?” Ward said. “Really? At that level?”

During Georgetown’s “Champions of Character” program, it was said that, contrary to conventional wisdom, athletics do not build character. Athletics do not even reveal character. It diminishes character.

“This is a societal problem,” Ward said. “It’s not a sports problem. Because of what we value. ... Society values winning. How we win doesn’t matter.”

Another recent example saw Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor object to Jose Bautista’s hard slide by punching the Toronto player in the face. Ward recalled a commentator saying the incident was good for baseball. “Because people were talking about baseball,” Ward said.

For kicking an opponent in the groin, Green was fined but not suspended. Ward saw a double standard times two. The NBA would have imposed a harsher penalty if the incident happened in the regular season or if a less prominent player had done the kicking, he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business,” Ward said. “It’s an entertainment business. Everybody is in it to make money. Players are in it to make money. Owners are in it to make money.”

Ward suggested that financial considerations led to Green not being suspended. The powers-that-be know the playoff series is potentially more lucrative and the TV show more compelling if Green plays.

“They don’t like anyone messing with their pocketbooks,” Ward said.

Shallow pool

Jay Bilas, one of ESPN’s analysts of the NBA Draft, said this is not a vintage year for players.

“I don’t think it’s one of the better years we’ve had for the draft,” he said. “We’ve got some good players at the top. But it’s not as deep as it’s been.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to get some great players out of it. We always seem to do that. We don’t have quite as many sort of top-flight players as you might have in other years.”

This begs a question: Why are there fewer great players? There is no reason because these things are cyclical, right?

“There is a reason,” Bilas said. “The class is not as talented. It wasn’t as good a high school class. Next year is going to be much, much better.”

‘A higher ceiling’

Conspicuous by its absence at the NBA Combine was the SEC.

Eight SEC players, including four from UK, were there. But where was Alabama’s Retin Obasohan? Or league-leading scorer Stefan Moody of Ole Miss? Or Arkansas’ Moses Kingsley, perhaps the SEC’s most improved player last season?

Yet Skal Labissiere, who struggled to find his footing as a freshman, was there.

“Skal (Labissiere) is a better prospect ... ,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He’s got a higher ceiling than any of the guys you mentioned.”

Happy birthday

To Ben Howland. The Mississippi State coach turned 59 on Saturday. ... To Adam Delph. He turned 26 on Saturday. ... To former Florida coach/current Oklahoma City Thunder Coach Billy Donovan. He turns 51 on Monday. ... To former UK President David Roselle. He turns 77 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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