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John Calipari explains why Kentucky’s freshmen declined U-19 invitations from USA Basketball

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Andrew and Aaron Harrison (Getty Images)

The release of USA Basketball's training camp roster Wednesday afternoon for the U-19 world championships inspired one obvious question: Why weren't any Kentucky players participating?

It's not that USA Basketball wasn't interested or that John Calipari advised against it. Forward Julius Randle, guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and the rest of the members of Kentucky's top-ranked recruiting class simply preferred to spend the summer getting acclimated to college life and preparing for a run at the national title.

"Most of it is, they didn’t want to play. I’m not forcing kids to do anything," Calipari told Sporting News. "I think the reason they all turned it down is, they want to get started."

"I’m happy they’re thinking in those terms. They know the spotlight’s on them."

The knee-jerk reaction here is to criticize players for turning down a potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to represent their country, but in this case that doesn't seem fair.

First of all, the Kentucky incoming freshmen were far from alone in their decision. Arizona-bound Aaron Gordon was the lone top 20 Class of 2013 recruit who chose to try out for the U-19 team and the only other incoming freshmen on the roster are Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Washington's Nigel Williams-Goss and UCLA's Bryce Alford.

Secondly, Kentucky's decorated recruiting class faces a different level of pressure than any of their peers.

Thanks to the arrival of a group of freshmen considered as one of the greatest recruiting hauls of all time, Kentucky will likely begin the season No. 1 in the polls and with championship-or-bust expectations. It makes sense that a team with so many newcomers would want to spend the summer building chemistry on and off the court to ensure they don't flop the way last year's team did.

Ultimately, the decision of the Kentucky freshmen and fellow class of 2013 stars Jabari Parker (Duke) and Chris Walker (Florida) explains why the U-19 championship is the most difficult for USA Basketball to win. The U.S. has only captured gold at the U-19 championships once in the past six tournaments in part because other countries send cohesive rosters featuring their best players and top American prospects are sometimes more interested in preparing for college or the NBA.

There's nothing wrong with that decision. It just helps level the international basketball playing field.

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