LEXINGTON, Ky. – The men in blue shirts were loitering on the sidewalk between Wildcat Lodge and the Craft Center, waiting for their brush with greatness.
The five Kentucky basketball players who would make their professional declarations Tuesday night had to walk between the Lodge, where they live, and the Craft Center, the practice facility where they coalesced into a championship unit. This was the place for the gathered fans to beg for an autograph, a picture, a final fleeting connection with players they've barely gotten to know.
The men might not get another chance. Soon these young men will be gone.
Yahoo! Sports will spend the next year chronicling the three teams widely expected to be ranked 1-2-3 in the 2012-13 preseason polls: Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. The three regional rivals have a combined 15 national titles and 30 Final Four appearances, but never have they entered a season with a monopoly on the top spots in the rankings in the same season. Yahoo! Sports periodically will provide insider coverage of their chase for the national championship, starting with the announcement of radical transition at defending champ Kentucky on Tuesday night.
The most transient national titlists in college basketball history made official Tuesday night what everyone expected to happen: The Kentucky Wildcats' top five underclassmen are turning pro. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague are leaving college after a single season; Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are departing as wizened sophomores.
This is the new reality that John Calipari has wrought – piecing together nearly new teams on an annual basis and making runs at the championship. He has rewritten the title timeline, and never more successfully than this season. This was his greatest team, a 38-2 juggernaut that rarely was challenged during its stampede through the season.
These five, plus senior sixth man Darius Miller, will be drafted in June. That is what Calipari is selling to players, and selling it better than anyone – the express lane to NBA riches.
But after an unprecedented exodus of talent, what will the next Kentucky team look like? Can a team lose six players this good and still compete for the national title?
"[Calipari] gotta find a new six," Lamb said wryly.
That, of course, is what Calipari excels at. He already has signed what everyone considers the top recruiting class for 2012-13, and at least one more blue-chipper is expected to join the fold this spring. For at least the third time in four years, Kentucky could well be the most talented team in the country.
But the sublime teamwork of the 2012 champs will be difficult – if not impossible – to emulate. And there is no hardened veteran to count on.
[The Dagger: Spaced cleared for the next batch of Kentucky stars]
The only holdover who contributed at all to the school's eighth national title is sophomore-to-be Kyle Wiltjer. The sweet-shooting big man had his moments this season, but he definitely was option No. 7 in a seven-man rotation.
The next Kentucky team will not have a Miller, who came to the rescue routinely as an upperclassman. Nor will it have someone such as DeAndre Liggins or Josh Harrellson, veterans who helped guide the Wildcats to a surprising Final Four in 2011. There is no Patrick Patterson, the experienced holdover on Calipari's first Kentucky team in 2010.
So the task of fielding a made-from-scratch contender figures to be more difficult than in any of Calipari's first three seasons. And the early-season schedule will be harder. Experienced Indiana and Louisville teams will be itching to pay the 'Cats back in December for eliminating them in the NCAA tournament.
Despite the daunting challenge, the outgoing group thinks Kentucky can go back-to-back with totally different lineups.
"Definitely," Jones said. "If they come together like we were, they can have the same success we had."
"They've got a great recruiting class coming in," Davis said. "They're going to work hard, get their games right and prepare for the season."
The most important piece of that recruiting class is Nerlens Noel, who might be Davis 2.0 on the defensive end. Davis, who shattered just about every existing shot-blocking record, said he believes Noel can break all those marks next season.
"I think he's better than me," Davis said.
It's conceivable that Noel is better defensively than Davis, but still hard to believe. And it's very hard to believe he could be as polished offensively or, most important, as mature and unspoiled.
As a late-blooming star, Davis was spared much of the ruining process that occurs in youth basketball for prospects targeted at an early age. He ranks among the least-spoiled superstars in college hoops' modern era, and his attitude should charm whoever ends up with the first pick in the NBA draft and lucks into the willowy center.
The coach will love Davis, and so will everyone in the city where he lands. He's a blossoming quick wit, just starting to showcase a personality that should make him an endorsement and media magnet.
I asked him Tuesday night if he realized that he's about to become rich.
"I hadn't thought about that yet," he said. "You're right: I am going to be rich."
Davis then said Calipari told all the players to put their first million dollars in the bank before going on any spending sprees, and Davis dutifully said he will manage his money. Then he smiled beneath that now-famous unibrow.
"Good thing is, I like math," he said. "So I should be able to take care of that."
His counsel to the next generation of Wildcats stars was tongue-in-cheek. Appreciative of the crowd-control abilities of local law enforcement during his six months as a Lexington rock star, Davis said, "That would probably be my advice. Always keep the police with you."
The police cannot be everywhere, of course. They can't keep the men in blue shirts from hanging out for a glimpse of their transient heroes.
The same men probably will be there next year at this time as the next group of Wildcats finishes their single season in Lexington. But will they be celebrating another national title, or is Kentucky's annual instant rebuilding process due to finally take a dip?
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