After Louisville hoisted the national championship trophy, talk immediately proceeded to 2014, where pundits said Kentucky had assembled one of the best recruiting classes of all time, and was a prohibitive favorite for the 2014 national title. But since then, a series of events have transpired to make Kentucky’s recruiting class lead much slimmer, and as it stands now could Kentucky perhaps not be the best team in even their own state or conference?
The big news, recruiting wise, of course is that Andrew Wiggins decided not to join Kentucky and instead elected to play for Kansas. The second piece of recruiting news, that went unnoticed compared to Wiggins’s announcement, is that ESPN switched up their rankings a bit and fellow Kansas Freshman Joel Embiid is now the #1 ranked center in the class and not Dakari Johnson. Kentucky still has a loaded class, but with Wiggins’s announcement and Embiid’s improvement, their class, once thought to be among the best ever, has a much slimmer lead over Kansas for the best class of this year.
With Russ Smith returning to Louisville, the Cardinals will be returning one of the best five players in the country. The Cardinals will also return Chane Behanan , Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell and Kevin Ware. That’s four of their top five turnover creators in the NCAA tournament, including the top two before Kevin Ware’s injury.
Offensively the Cardinals will be heavily dependent on Smith, who shot just 46% from two but went to the line 276 times last year (18th in drawing fouls per 40 minutes) and made 80% of his free throws. Those obviously are a double plus, as they are semi free points for Smith and they are fouls on the other team. Elsewhere, the Cardinals will benefit from a full season of Montrezl Harrell. Harrell played just under 40% of the minutes for Louisville, but shot 58% from two and was the third best offensive rebounder on the team, making a group that grabbed almost 40% of its misses even better on the glass.
Louisville loses Peyton Siva, and it is always tough to replace a Senior point guard, but Louisville has two excellent point guard recruits coming in. Chris Jones was maybe the best Junior College player in the country this past season, and Terry Rozier was forced to go to prep school due to academic issues, but he was probably a top 30-50 guy from 2012. With those two being a year or two older than your average Freshman, they should be physically ready to compete in college. Kentucky is probably more talented than Lousiville, but the Cardinals have a lot of talent and the experience to go with it.
Florida won the SEC last year, but while they were advanced stats darlings the wins didn’t necessarily follow, as they finished the year with 8 losses. Gone from the Gators are Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy, but with Boynton shooting 23% of the time despite an eFG under 50% he might be an addition by subtraction.
Offensively, the Gators will revolve around Patric Young, who decided to return for his Senior season. Young shot 59% from two and drew 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes. If he made his free throws he would be an even bigger weapon on offense, but he has turned into a versatile offensive player, making shots both at the rim and showing off an impressive jumper.
Even without the three losses, Florida will still be an elite defensive team next year. Will Yeguete was one of the best perimeter defenders not named Victor Oladipo or Travis Releford in the country last year, and Scottie Wilbekin proved he could defend well on the perimeter as well. Young improved his block percentage to 7%, and also turned himself into a more complete post defender. For a large portion of last season the Gators were on pace to be the best defensive team of the KenPom era, and while they had to settle for 3rd nationally in 2013, they had an elite defense and will still bring most of that defensive talent back.
While the returning players aren’t a murderer’s row on offense like Louisville, Billy Donovan has done an excellent job of bringing in new talent to supplement those players. Kasey Hill is one of my favorite players in the class, a 6’1” guard who overcomes his lack of size via a 6’5” wingspan. He’s already a college Freshman age wise (he’s a 1993 birthdate), so he will be more physically mature than a lot of newcomers, and while people should still be hesitant about trusting a Freshman point guard, even in this era, Hill is mature enough and has enough talent around him to make Florida a heavy contender for a repeat SEC title.
Again, all of this isn’t to say that Kentucky is terrible or they won’t win the SEC, but with people talking about their quest for 40-0 in the middle of the last season, it is interesting how this perfect storm, from Smith going back to Louisville to Wiggins deciding to go to Kansas, has combined to make Kentucky’s position at the top much more precarious.