UK Recruiting

Kentucky in a class by itself?

Kentucky's freshmen. Back row (from left): James Young, Dakari Johnson, Dominique Hawkins, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis. Front row (from left): Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison.
Kentucky's freshmen. Back row (from left): James Young, Dakari Johnson, Dominique Hawkins, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis. Front row (from left): Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison. Herald-Leader

If relying solely on player rankings, a story proclaiming the greatest recruiting class of all time would involve writing only a paragraph or two. Kentucky's freshmen this season include a record six McDonald's All-Americans. That's two more than anybody's ever had anywhere, anytime.

That settles that. Sound the trumpets!

"By numbers and by rankings, it's not even close," analyst Jerry Meyer of the 247Sports recruiting service said. "To me, it's a no-brainer."

Of course, it's not so easy to determine the best recruiting class of all time. Do six McDonald's All-Americans trump one Lew Alcindor? In leading UCLA to three straight national championships in the 1960s, Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was college basketball's most dominant player of the last 50 years. As Brittney Griner's recent dominance of the women's game seemed somehow unfair, so ruled Alcindor, whose presence inspired a ban on dunking.

What about the Indiana class that posted a 32-0 record as seniors in 1975-76? No team has gone undefeated since, although UK aims to match that feat this season.

Or Michigan's Fab Five? They not only advanced to back-to-back title games, but changed basketball culture. Hello baggy shorts, black socks and, most pertinent to UK, the idea that freshmen could compete right away en masse.

Kentucky can nominate other classes deserving of inclusion in a best-ever discussion. The Fabulous Five. Hagan-Ramsey-Tsioropoulos. The Super Kittens. John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins-Eric Bledsoe. Only two years ago, UK Coach John Calipari equalled the existing record by signing four McDonald's All-Americans: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer. That team did the Fab Five one better by showing that freshmen could win the NCAA Tournament.

Then again, what do the rankings really mean? The Florida class that won the 2006 and 2007 national championships as sophomores and juniors had only one McDonald's All-American: Corey Brewer. Coach Billy Donovan considered Al Horford and Joakim Noah "projects," which is akin to the mildly derogatory designation of "game manager" for quarterbacks.

"The minute they stepped into practice, their mind-set, their attitude, their disposition set them apart," Donovan said. "I knew these guys were going to be special."

Horford, Noah and company put team first. They were "ultra-competitive," Donovan said, yet fostered a palpable unity of purpose.

"Joakim Noah and Al Horford never, ever said once to me over a three-year period, 'I need more touches; I need more shots,'" Donovan said.

So, Donovan lucked into a treasure trove of A-plus talent, temperament and achievement?

"Absolutely," he said. "We all do. If everybody had it figured out, we'd never have some of the guys we have in our programs. It's such an inexact science. You don't know a player till you coach him."

Recruiting McDonald's All-Americans doesn't ensure success, but that's where the smart money goes. Calipari has preached chemistry. He's noted how Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist did not demand shots, and he's noted how no UK player took more than nine shots in the 2012 national semifinal victory over Louisville.

But Kentucky's success is pinned on a tried and true formula: star power.

"I just think we have a great class coming in," freshman James Young said when asked about the hype. "... I think we'll have a good chance of doing some damage when we just keep going day by day."

Before they arrived at UK, the freshmen were not so careful about the greatest-ever label.

"I think that's what we're all thinking right now," Marcus Lee said. "One of my goals is to go flat-out undefeated. That is my big goal: to be the best team out there, hands down."

Any discussion of best class ever should mention the Ohio State class of 1958. Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Bob Knight led the Buckeyes to the 1960 national championship and Final Four appearances in 1961 and 1962.

Those teams had an overall record of 78-6. "I remember the losses more than all the wins," Havlicek said.

Freshmen were not eligible then, so those players quietly adapted to college life in their first year.

"There was not much speculation other than the fact they knew we'd be superior to the varsity," Havlicek said. "We were pretty levelheaded about everything. We didn't consider ourselves better than anybody else. We just had to prove ourselves."

Much had changed when Alcindor arrived at UCLA in the fall of 1965. As Lucas, Havlicek and fellow freshmen beat Ohio State's varsity, so Alcindor-led freshmen beat UCLA's varsity. The difference was UCLA had won the previous two national championships.

Lynn Shackelford made that point when he spoke at former teammate Kenny Heitz's funeral in 2012. "That was a big deal," he said. "And that remained a big deal and is a big deal. ...

"They were ranked No. 1 in the country, but were only No. 2 on campus."

Never mind talk of Kentucky going 40-0. Shackelford recalled talk of Alcindor leading UCLA to a three-year record of 90-0.

"And we went 88-2," he said.

Shackelford, whose perimeter shooting created space for Alcindor to operate around the basket, credited Alcindor for UCLA's dominance.

"We would win those games in the first five or 10 minutes because opponents didn't know what to do," he said. "They couldn't stop him. They couldn't score against him. They were befuddled."

Indiana's class of 1972 lacked one transcendent player. But Scott May, Bobby Wilkerson, Quinn Buckner and Tom Abernethy rode teamwork to a record of 63-1 in their last two seasons. To illustrate the team-first approach, Abernethy noted that Buckner and Wilkerson, the starting guards, each averaged less than 10 points per game, yet were among the first 11 players taken in the 1976 NBA Draft. Buckner, the seventh pick, averaged 8.7 shots as a senior. Wilkerson, the 11th pick, averaged 7.0 shots.

"It took us awhile to develop into who we ended up being," Abernethy said. "... I could just see we were getting more accustomed to what Coach (Bob) Knight wanted us to do."

No doubt, Calipari would be envious of the time it took the Indiana players to mesh? "Probably not until halfway through our sophomore year and into our junior year," Abernethy said.

Of course, Kentucky does not have that luxury of time.

As UK fans know so well, Indiana's only loss in a two-year period came against the Wildcats. The Super Kittens in the class of 1971 anchored the Kentucky team that beat Indiana 92-90 in the 1975 Mideast Region finals.

In those pre-McDonald's All-American days, the UK class boasted four Mr. Basketballs: Kevin Grevey (Ohio), Mike Flynn (Indiana), Jimmy Dan Conner (Kentucky) and Bob Guyette (Illinois). The other three freshmen were all-state players: Steve Lochmueller (Indiana), Jerry Hale (Kentucky) and G.J. Smith (Kentucky).

The Kittens lost their first scrimmage against the varsity by 53 points. In time, they more than held their own.

"When we finally got ahead of them, Coach (Adolph) Rupp put five more minutes on the scoreboard," Hale said. "Once the varsity got ahead, the game ended. In their minds, they weren't going to let us win."

The Kittens had a 22-0 record as a freshman team and averaged 100-plus points. They fascinated fans and irked the varsity.

Hale recalled the Kittens closing the dorm room door before watching a television special on the freshmen. They didn't want the veteran players to see them soaking up the adulation. "The varsity was so ticked off," he said. "They wanted to beat the crap out of us."

Freshmen have long since become not only accepted at Kentucky, but the main men in a revolving-door program. Calipari has recruited five straight classes rated as the nation's best.

Whether this season's freshmen are the best ever remains to be seen. John Wall, the star of stars in Calipari's first class, is not conceding anything to Julius Randle, the Harrison twins and UK's other highly regarded freshmen.

"I'm always going to say my class is the greatest," he said, "and I feel that way. We have that mind-set we're not going to lose to anybody."

Never mind that Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe lost in the Elite Eight. Never mind that this UK freshman class includes four top-10 prospects and six considered among the top-25 players in the high school class of 2013.

That mind-set — we're not going to lose — sounds like the quality Calipari wants to infuse into this season's freshmen. It's the intangible that distinguishes the greatest from the merely great.

"We just had that 'it' factor," Wall said. "That 'dog.' We really trusted each other a lot."

G r e at c l a s s e s

Ohio State

Class: 1958

Prominent players: Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell, Bob Knight

Accomplishments: Ohio State won the national championship in their sophomore year and lost in the finals the next two years. Ohio State won three Big Ten titles and posted an overall record of 78-6. Lucas is the only three-time Big Ten player of the year. He was also two-time National Player of the Year and a two-time Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.


Class: 1965

Prominent players: Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Lucius Allen, Lynn Shackelford, Ken Heitz

Accomplishments: UCLA won the national championship in each of their three seasons. In that time, UCLA had a record of 88-2. Alcindor became the only player to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four three times. He was also college basketball National Player of the Year three times.


Class: 1970

Prominent players: Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes, Greg Lee

Accomplishments: UCLA won two national championships and compiled an 86-4 record in their three seasons. The Bruins won their first 73 games. As sophomores and juniors, this group posted back-to-back 30-0 records. A third national championship slipped away in a double-overtime loss to N.C. State in Greensboro at the Final Four.


Class: 1971

Prominent players: Kevin Grevey, Bob Guyette, Mike Flynn, Jimmy Dan Conner

Accomplishments: The Super Kittens eased the transition from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall. Arguably, they were UK's first celebrated freshman class at a time when freshmen were not eligible. After going 22-0 on the freshman team, they went on to win two SEC championships and beat unbeaten Indiana in one of the most stirring games in UK history to advance to the 1975 Final Four.


Class: 1972

Prominent players: Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy

Accomplishments: Their 32-0 record in 1975-76 continues to mark Indiana as college basketball's last undefeated team. And the Hoosiers might have been even better in their junior season of 1974-75. IU was certainly deeper that season, which ended in a 92-90 loss to Kentucky in the Mideast Region finals. Indiana won the Big Ten championship each of their seasons, twice going undefeated in league play.


Class: 1991

Prominent players: Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson

Accomplishments: The "Fab Five" revolutionized college basketball on and off the court. By advancing to the 1992 and 1993 national championship games, they showed that freshmen could compete at the highest level. They also forced fans to rethink the etiquette of the game. Short-shorts gave way to baggy shorts. White socks became an option rather than a requirement. Players felt freer to express themselves.


Class: 2004

Prominent players: Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer

Accomplishments: They became only the second team since the UCLA dynasty to win back-to-back national championships. The NCAA Tournament titles in 2006 and 2007 also signalled to the rest of the SEC that a program other than Kentucky could be elite. Only Brewer was a McDonald's All-American, with Rivals ranking the prospects as Brewer No. 31; Horford No. 36; Noah No. 75, and Green No. 105. As a freshman, Noah averaged only 9.4 minutes and didn't start a game.


Class: 2009

Prominent players: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton

Accomplishments: These freshmen returned Kentucky to prominence. Wall, who was projected as the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, lived up to the billing. He hit the winning shot in his first game and became the first UK player to be the overall No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. All four freshmen were taken in the first round, prompting Calipari to proclaim it the greatest night in UK basketball history.


Class: 2011

Prominent players: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer

Accomplishments: Became the first freshman-dependent team to win a national championship. UK also won the SEC regular-season championship with a 16-0 record. Davis became the first UK player to win various National Player of the Year awards. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist went 1-2 in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Jerry Tipton

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