CBK preview: Kentucky's front line best in nation

Kyle Tucker, Lindy's Sports
The SportsXchange

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.
But ...
"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."

Top 10 Frontcourts
1. Kentucky
John Calipari has near-endless options at his disposal with a frontcourt that is big, skilled and deep. Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) is a consensus choice as the top freshman in the country, but Julius Randle has plenty of support in that regard. There isn't a current college player with power-forward dimensions who approaches him in terms of diversity of offensive skill. Willie Cauley-Stein's experience as a freshman should keep him ahead of freshman Dakari Johnson as a starter. Sophomore Alex Poythress could start if Calipari elects to go big, with another freshman, James Young, as a backcourt starter. Now is the time to trot out the "P" word: This, potentially, is one of Calipari's best-ever frontcourts.

2. Baylor
The Bears rolled to the NIT championship last spring and the play of Cory Jefferson was a major reason. He could prove to be as good a power forward as there is on the college level this season. Don't be surprised when he's shaking Adam Silver's hand as a NBA first-round choice next June. A shoulder injury kept Isaiah Austin from pressing the flesh with David Stern during his last draft go-around as NBA commish in June. Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince were the top post subs as freshmen. Scott Drew will have to find 25 or so minutes per game for freshman Ishmail Wainright somewhere on the floor. He has a linebacker's body with a point guard's skill.

3. Louisville
It will be far from the tallest set of starting posts in college. But the duo of Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell -- each a lot closer to 6-6 than they are, say, 6-9 -- will not lose a lot of low-post tussles this season for Rick Pitino. Each will be considered among the best rebounders that Pitino has coached before eventually heading for the NBA. At 6-9ish, Stephan Van Treese gives Pitino a tad more size and plenty of Big East and NCAA Tournament experience off the bench. Freshman Akoy Agau is strong enough to help in the post and skilled enough to contribute from the perimeter.

The Cavaliers had one of the more underrated freshman posts in the country last season in Mike Tobey. That shouldn't be the case, however, in his sophomore season after his productive first year in the ACC and his performance with the Team USA's 19-and-under gold medal-winning squad in Prague during the summer. Akil Mitchell and Justin Anderson form as bouncy a pair of forwards as there is in the ACC. Mitchell was impressive as one of the college players who worked out at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas in July. Evan Nolte provides an exceptional jump shooter in the frontcourt equation for Tony Bennett.

5. Michigan State
Like teammate Gary Harris, center Adreian Payne seemed destined to bolt for the NBA draft last spring. But, also like the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year, Payne returned to East Lansing and is full-fledged All-America material. He is also the anchor for one of the better frontcourts in the country. His freshman-to-senior improvement has been both steady and remarkable. Branden Dawson is among the more assertive - to say the least - rebounders in college. Another player in the 6-5, 220-pound range (a la Dawson) is sophomore Denzel Valentine, who jump-shoots well enough to play off the ball in the backcourt, too.

6. Kansas
Bill Self has recruited a lot of exceptional prospects but none who have checked onto a campus with quite the hyperbole that accompanied Andrew Wiggins. It's pretty much all justified, by the way. He could have every bit the same caliber of impact on the Jayhawks -- and college hoops in general -- that Marcus Smart had in Stillwater last season. Center Joel Embiid isn't nearly as polished as Wiggins but should do some pretty spectacular things as a freshman as well. Posts Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor had solid freshman seasons and their presence should ease Embiid's transition in November and December.

7. Arizona
The loss of Grant Jerrett to the NBA after just one season was a hit, but the addition of Aaron Gordon -- whose stay in Tucson might prove as abbreviated as was Jerrett's -- more than prevents any slippage. There is a lot of Derrick Williams in both his innate athleticism and basketball skill. Sophomore Brandon Ashley could use a dose of Gordon's aggressiveness to better dip into his talent reservoir. Another sophomore, Kaleb Tarczewski, should prove even tougher for opponents to root out of low-post position. If Sean Miller decides to go small, a frontcourt of Gordon, Ashley and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be dynamic as heck.

8. Syracuse
Big, strong, deep and plenty of skill tossed into the mix as well: that pretty much sums up what should be one of the better frontcourts that Jim Boeheim has had at his disposal in recent seasons. C.J. Fair was an All-Big East selection and will add All-ACC to his résumé this season. Rakeem Christmas didn't have overwhelming numbers but started at center as a sophomore. Dajuan Coleman and Baye Keita add bulk and experience inside, and Duke transfer Michael Gbinije will not only back up Fair at the "3" but could play alongside him as well.

9. Michigan
John Beilein batted .500 in the "going or staying" derby, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. departing for the NBA and Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III staying in Ann Arbor for at least one more season. If McGary plays as well from November on as a sophomore as he did in March and April as a freshman, the chances that the Wolverines will return to the Final Four will be enhanced considerably. Jordan Morgan started 27 times at center as a junior. Zak Irvin could play a lot as a freshman as either a 3 or 2, depending upon whether Nik Stauskas is on the floor at the time.

10. New Mexico
Tony Snell left a season of eligibility on the table in Albuquerque to head to the NBA, but the frontcourt that coach Craig Neal has at his disposal is anything but short-staffed. Alex Kirk snatched nine or more rebounds 16 times while Aussie forward Cameron Bairstow did it half that many times. That duo will prove as effective a high-low combo as there is in college this season. Nick Banyard, a high school teammate of Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, should have an expanded role as a sophomore. Tim Myles is a lot more physical and assertive than the typical freshman and could contribute as well.

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