LEXINGTON, Ky. — Good luck finding a frontcourt in college basketball more talented than Kentucky’s.
In fact, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats would probably trade.
There are six former Top-50 recruits in the group, five of them McDonald’s All-Americans. Forwards Julius Randle, James Young and Alex Poythress and centers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are among ESPN draft guru Chad Ford’s Top 25 NBA prospects for 2014.
Then there’s Marcus Lee, one of the top high school shot-blockers in the country, and former Top-100 recruit Derek Willis, a finalist for Mr. Basketball in Kentucky.
They go 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, 6-9, 6-11 and 7-0 — all of them skilled, some of them shooters, some scorers, some swatters or slammers, or in the case of super freshman Randle, a combination of all. It is a potentially devastating front line.
“Potential is exactly that,” Cauley-Stein said. “We had the potential (last) year and didn’t capitalize on it, so it could easily be we have the best recruiting class coming in and not do anything with it. It’s that simple. If you don’t come together and do things right, then you’re just a bunch of talented kids that didn’t get anything accomplished.”
But coach John Calipari doesn’t believe history is going to repeat itself because now he has strength in numbers — and personality. Led by the powerful and explosive Randle, Calipari’s 6-9 “alpha beast,” the four touted freshmen figure to push the two “veterans,” sophomores Cauley-Stein and Poythress, who passed up NBA first-round money to come back to Kentucky.
Calipari saw results in summer workouts.
“Both of them are challenged,” he said. “Now you really see guys blossom. Right now, Willie’s challenged by the other big guys. Alex is challenged by Julius and the other guys. So all of the sudden, they’ve elevated their game. You make an excuse, you’ll be sitting. And they know that now, because you’ve got other guys.
“What you see is they’re on a mission like some of my best teams have been on.”
Suddenly, the 7-foot Cauley-Stein, who went from somewhat of a project when he signed to the SEC All-Freshman team last season, is a projected NBA lottery pick. Calipari hopes he will help lead the Wildcats to a ninth national championship — second in three years — before he goes.
“Willie Cauley has a chance to be one of the better players that I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said. “He’s not delusional at all. Understood how far he had come. Understood how far he needed to go. Understood he could have been a first-round draft pick. He knew. But he came back anyway, because he wasn’t delusional.”
Poythress, a 6-7 forward with a smooth 3-point stroke and a body built for banging in the paint, was inconsistent. He dominated Duke, disappeared against Robert Morris — the stunning NIT loss to finish a disappointing season.
“I didn’t want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth,” Poythress said. “You didn’t want to end your college career like that. (I want to) just prove that I belong, too, prove that I’m not just potential.”
Poythress is viewed differently than many other players, Calipari said, because he’s at Kentucky, where all hyped recruits are expected to be one-and-dones, star for a season and cash in as pros.
“Alex Poythress learned a lot about himself and where he’s going to have to take everything to be the player that he wants to be,” Calipari said. “He knew he wasn’t ready (for the NBA). He knew: ‘I have to change. I have to take this to another level.’ If he does, and the competition brings out the best in him, it is scary how good he can be.”
Scarier still is the fact that neither Cauley-Stein nor Poythress is likely to be the best player in UK’s frontcourt. Randle, who some analysts believe could be as good or better as projected No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, reminds his coach of former UK star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the emotional leader of the 2012 NCAA title team.
“He’s an alpha beast who will drive the team,” Calipari said. “There are good players out there, (but) he’s as good as any of them.”
Several NBA alumni were back on campus this summer and watched or worked out with Randle and came away impressed. Kidd-Gilchrist, Archie Goodwin, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins are among the pros singing Randle’s praises.
“He’s a competitive guy just like I was,” Goodwin said, “in the gym every night just like I was.”
Besides sheer volume and talent, the versatility of the Cats’ frontcourt is impressive. Young is a 6-6 small forward who could be Kentucky’s best outside shooter — if that’s not Poythress — and Johnson is the first traditional center that Calipari has signed in four years.
Whenever Johnson and Cauley-Stein play together, especially if Randle is on the floor with them, UK would have to be the biggest team in America. Not to mention Lee, who’s a better shot-blocker than all of them. He averaged 13.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and 9.1 blocks as a high school junior and swatted 566 shots during his prep career.
This frontcourt is so loaded that Lee might be the fourth- or fifth-best player in it. So loaded that junior Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 forward who shot 40 percent from 3-point range, was being asked to redshirt this season and instead transferred to Gonzaga.
Just how good are these guys?
“We haven’t done nothing yet,” Poythress said. “We haven’t won anything yet. So we still gotta prove ourselves.”