The sting of Kentucky's disappointing 2012-13 basketball season did not last as long as it ordinarily might have thanks in large part to John Calipari's latest No. 1 recruiting class serving as a beacon of hope.
The Big Blue Nation's collective attention quickly turned from missing the NCAA Tournament to dreaming about another championship run next season thanks to a collection of signees that could wind up being considered the best in the history of the game.
Five-star guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, five-star forward Julius Randle, five-star wing James Young and five-star centers Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee give the Wildcats six of the top 21 prospects in the Class of 2013, according to Scout. UK also has three-star Kentucky "Mr. Basketball" candidate Derek Willis in the fold, comprising a monster class that may not even be complete.
Beyond their impressive rankings, there is one thing that all of the future Cats have in common: they are all winners.
After losing in the Texas state finals in 2012, the Harrison twins bounced back to defeat South Grand Prairie 46-38 in leading Fort Bend (Texas) Travis High School to the 5A State Championship.
Aaron Harrison, who typically plays the off-guard position, averaged 23 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals per game during his senior year. Andrew Harrison, who runs the point, marked season averages of 14 points, five assists and six rebounds.
The 6-foot-5 twins led their team to a 33-5 record while helping Travis High School post a No. 16 national ranking, according to USA Today.
Randle became the latest addition to UK's recruiting class when he chose the Cats over Texas, Kansas, and Florida during a recent ESPNU televised announcement.
"It's an amazing class, but we haven't done anything yet," Randle said. "Our class isn't going to be judged until you see how we play in college. And our goal is to win it, go undefeated, whatever we want to do. Once we do that, then you can judge our class. But right now, we're just great recruits."
While his future team appears to be loaded on paper, Randle's Prestonwood Christian Academy limped to a 15-19 record on the year. The top-ranked forward in the 2013 class proved his importance during his absence this season.
Randle fractured his foot during the second game of his senior season. In what came as a surprise, the 6-foot-8 forward returned to action for the final five games in March. Despite poor regular season results, he led Prestonwood Christian to a second-consecutive TAPPS 5A Texas state title by averaging almost 28 points and 13 rebounds per game.
Young began his senior season with some controversy in the state of Michigan as he transferred from Troy to nearby Rochester High School.
The 6-6 wing carried his new squad to the first district title Rochester Hills has seen in 25 years. He also led his team to the Class A state quarterfinal game, where his Falcons fell just short, 54-49, against Detroit's Southeastern High School.
"James is the best player the state has seen in a long, long time," Rochester head coach John Pleasant told MI Prep Zone. "And to do what he's been able to do, night-in and night-out all these years, with basically the whole gym guarding him, is just amazing in so many ways. He's a phenomenal kid and a phenomenal competitor."
Oddly, Young finished third in the race for Michigan's "Mr. Basketball" award despite averaging an eye-popping 27 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and five steals per game. Monte Morris, who is headed to Iowa State, and Derrick Walton, who will play for the University of Michigan, topped Young for the coveted award. The decision came as a surprise as the 6-foot-6 forward was the clear-cut favorite all season long.
Scout's top-ranked center, Johnson, is the only future Wildcat whose high school season has yet to finalize. The 7-footer has spent the past three seasons with national powerhouse, Montverde Academy. The Eagles currently boast a 23-2 record this season and have secured a spot as the consensus No. 2 team in the nation.
Johnson has put up marks this season of 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game, putting his team in position to contend for a national prep championship in the coming weeks.
"It has been a crazy run and it will be a great chance to leave the court with my brothers one last time as national champions," Johnson said in an exclusive interview with Scout.
Second-seeded Montverde Academy is scheduled to take on No. 7 seed Oak Hill Academy of Virginia on Thursday, April 4. The game will be held at Georgetown Prep of Bethesda, Md., and is a part of the National High School Invitational.
This will present a challenge for Johnson as he has been invited to participate in the McDonald's All-American game on April 3.
"It will definitely be tough, but I will be getting rest at McDonalds. Not staying up late, but enjoying the experience." Johnson said. "But I will be motivated enough to play hard the next day to help my team win"
Marcus Lee's Antioch (Calif.) Deer Valley High School posted a 26-6 record in 2013, including a 9-1 mark in conference play. However, the Wolverines were upset 73-60 by Pleasant Grove in the state Division I semi-finals.
This season was not about personal accolades for Lee. Instead, he was satisfied with putting Deer Valley on the map, a school that has historically lacked tradition.
"We did wonders for our school this year. We got our school's name out and made history," Lee said. "I came into my freshman year with great expectation for my team and I. So finally carving my name in school history is the biggest thing for me."
The long, athletic 6-9 center put up astonishing numbers for Deer Valley this season, averaging 18 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocked shots, four assists and one steal per game.
Scout ranks Lee as the No. 2 center in the class of 2013, behind only his future teammate, Johnson.
Derek Willis may be the least-hyped member in UK's seven-man recruiting class. But do not discount the illustrious career the Mt. Washington, Ky., native had at Bullitt East High School.
Willis completed his four years in a Chargers' uniform with a 108-24 overall record. The 6-9 forward won more games than any other player in the state of Kentucky during that time period.
During his senior season, Willis averaged 17 points, nine rebounds and four block shots per game on his way to leading Bullitt East to a 29-5 record.
While it is a skill that typically goes unnoticed in the eyes of the average fan, Willis has a knack for finding his teammates on the court.
"Derek's best asset is his passing, he loves to get others involved," Bullitt East head coach Troy Barr told Scout. "That will make him very important to UK over the next couple of years."
While Willis enters next season as an oft-overlooked piece in Kentucky's stellar recruiting class, he could be viewed as a key "four-year player" by many fans who have been hoping to see Calipari sign more than just "one-and-done" pro prospects.
The Kentucky native is the only current member who did not receive an invitation to the McDonald's All-American Game (April 3) or Jordan Brand Classic (April 13). Instead, Willis will headline the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic. The All-Star game will be held in Louisville's Freedom Hall on Friday, April 19.
UK may not be done with the class. Calipari is still actively pursuing the nation's top-rated player, 6-8 Canadian wing Andrew Wiggins of Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. The Cats are also in the mix for Kentucky "Mr. Basketball" favorite Dominique Hawkins, a 6-1 combo guard who helped lead Madison Central to the state championship earlier this month.
Future Cats close prep careers in style
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