ARLINGTON (AP) – One by one, players in the Kentucky locker room said essentially the same thing: They had not given the NBA a second thought, much less a first, during their stirring Final Four run.
They’d better start thinking about it now.
With millions of dollars hanging in the balance, Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison and a bunch of other Wildcats soon will have to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Their deadline to declare for the draft is April 27, less than three weeks away.
“Now that the season is over, it’s about the players. It’s no longer about the program,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after a 60-56 loss to Connecticut in Monday night’s title game.
“It’s about each individual player on this team now,” Calipari said. “They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Season’s over. Now it’s about them. And we’ll sit down with each of them and they will make the decisions.”
James Young and Dakari Johnson are also candidates to join Randle and the Harrison twins on the one-and-done path. Sophomore big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress also could declare.
“I love school. I love being at Kentucky,” said Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer who missed the Final Four with an ankle injury. “I love the fan base. I love the community. I love the people there, so why not stay until they make you leave? It just gets better as you get older.
“But there are so many different things going through my head,” Cauley-Stein said. “There’s that other thing, millions of dollars, being able to work on your game, and only your game.”
Randle, a potential lottery pick, said he had kept thoughts of the NBA at bay.
“Never talked to coach or my family about it,” Randle said after scoring 10 points and pulling down six rebounds against UConn. “I’m sure it will be brought up, but I have no clue.”
The Harrisons, likewise, said they were focused only on delivering the Wildcats their ninth national championship. Afterward, they declined to even offer a timetable for their decision.
“It’s really thinking about this game,” Aaron Harrison said quietly. “It’s one of the biggest games in my career and we didn’t win, and I didn’t play my best. That’s pretty much all I’ll really be thinking about. I’m not thinking about next year or anything like that. I don’t know.”
This is hardly unfamiliar ground for Calipari and Kentucky. More like a rite of spring.
Since taking over the program five seasons ago, Calipari has produced 17 draft picks. Ten of those left after one season. No other coach has had more than five one-and-done players.
Calipari’s biggest bonanza came in 2012, after the Wildcats won the national title. Anthony Davis was picked first overall, and fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were joined by Terrance Jones, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb in giving Kentucky six selections.
Calipari had five draft picks in 2010, four in 2011 and two last season.
“I’ll sit down with each young man individually, probably have their family either with us or on a speaker phone and get them information and say, ‘If I can help you with anything, let me know,'” Calipari said. “‘Tell me what you want to do. What do I need to do to help you?'”
Most of the Wildcats already helped themselves. After a season that was often frustrating and disappointing, most of them helped their draft stock during their memorable NCAA tournament.
As the pressure ramped up, Randle kept pulling down rebounds. Aaron Harrison kept hitting clutch 3-pointers. Andrew Harrison kept doling out big assists. Young kept scoring when Kentucky needed him most. And just about everybody else with NBA potential chipped in.
“It’s so tough to play here at Kentucky and also balance school,” Cauley-Stein said. “I have to decide what’s best for my future, best for my game, and if I’m going to be happy either way.”
Either way, Kentucky should be solid again next season. The Wildcats will welcome another loaded recruiting class that includes five-star big men Trey Lyles and Karl Towns and four-star prospects Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis.
“I know that he’s going to get another great recruiting class and he’s going to be right there back here,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said late Monday night. “But what an amazing job he did this year getting those freshmen to buy in. That’s hard.”
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