Cats making the grade

Kentucky has improved leaps and bounds just in time to make an NCAA run

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LEXINGTON — It’s clear now that the Kentucky Wildcats didn’t get down to business — the kind of business that had them rated preseason No. 1 — until March 14, when they opened play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament vs. LSU.

Up until then, the regular season had been nothing but an extended practice session for the freshman-dominated Wildcats, with a lethargic 22-9 record the result.

Now, after a stunning run through the Midwest Region these past two weeks, it’s time to re-assess the 28-10 Wildcats as they prepare to take on 30-7 Wisconsin in the Final Four Saturday night (tip at 8:49) in Dallas/Arlington/North Texas.

I’ll start this grading session (A+ through F scale) with coach John Calipari and then go to the players who are making the most impact.

I have included relevant player statistics, and my opinion on their chances of leaving UK for the NBA Draft in the coming weeks.

CALIPARI — Grade A. I believe we can all agree that Calipari had clearly forgotten how to coach and manage people somewhere over the past two seasons, but in the days leading up to the recent Southeastern Conference Tournament, he remembered.

Just in time.

The UK coach is again pushing all the right buttons. And, frankly, Calipari seems much happier on the bench, replacing the mid-season glaring and screaming with post-season hugs and smiles.

“People are saying, ‘Boy, he looks more relaxed,’’’ Calipari said this week. “I’m more relaxed because I know I don’t have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate ... taking five bad shots. This team has been empowered now, and now I can just coach basketball.”

JULIUS RANDLE — Grade: A (15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game). Randle’s scoring and rebounding between the regular season and post-season are nearly identical, but I feel better about the 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman forward because it seems like lately, every rebound Randle gets is one the Wildcats absolutely had to have. Especially with 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein out with an ankle injury.

FUTURE? 100 percent, Randle will opt for the NBA Draft this spring. He’ll be a very good pro immediately, and if he improves his perimeter shot at all, he’s going to be great.

Randle may only be a third-team All American, and No. 30 in the program, but he’s No. 1 in our hearts.

JAMES YOUNG — Grade: A- (14.1 ppg., 4.2 rpg.). The 6-foot-6 swingman hasn’t become a Kevin Durant-type scorer in the post-season, but all his points down the stretch seem to come when Kentucky has to have them.

None of his 3-point shots were bigger than the one from downtown St. Louis, late in the 78-76 win over Wichita State. Kentucky isn’t at this point without that shot.

FUTURE? I’d say it’s 90 percent Young opts for the NBA Draft. He needs to get stronger and be more physical at that level, but my guess is his shooting will buy him time. Young will play in the NBA for a long time.

AARON HARRISON — Grade: A (14.1 ppg.).This past Sunday, after Harrison lifted Kentucky over Michigan, 75-72, teammate Alex Poythress called Aaron’s post-season shooting prowess “cold blooded.”

Down the stretch against Louisville Friday, and then against Michigan Sunday, Aaron hit big-time shot after big-time shot.

I love this guy, and have more compassion for he and his brother Andrew than I do for some of the other Wildcats because Aaron and Andrew attracted so much criticism this season. Most of it was not deserved.

FUTURE? Fifty-five percent chance he opts for the NBA Draft. He could probably make a pro team, but another year of college would land him in the first round.

ANDREW HARRISON — Grade: A (11 ppg., 3.9 assists per game, 3.1 rpg.). During a UK game late in the regular season, I heard a scout for the Denver Nuggets say of Andrew: “I see guards as good as him every night ... if he wasn’t 6-6, we wouldn’t be looking at him.”

I’ll bet that scout is not saying that now. I’m not suggesting Andrew is the second coming of Oscar Robertson, but he’s making much better, more instinctive decisions of late and has become, at worst, a very steady point guard at a big-time level.

FUTURE? I’d put Andrew’s odds of opting for the draft at 70 percent. He could make an NBA roster next season and grow into a good, if not spectacular, pro.

DAKARI JOHNSON — Grade: B (5.5 ppg., 3.9 rpg.). The 7-foot Johnson hasn’t been as effective against NCAA Tournament competition as he had been earlier, but he’s still pretty solid.

FUTURE? Forty percent chance he opts for the NBA Draft. Johnson’s skills are still raw, but he could make a roster next season and be a starter in a couple years. Probably be a late first round, early second round pick if he leaves UK now. If he comes back to UK, he’ll go high in the draft next spring.

ALEX POYTHRESS — Grade: B (5.8 ppg., 4.4 rpg.). The 6-8 Poythress, a sophomore, still disappears for stretches, but in post-season play, it seems like he gets every big rebound not grabbed by Randle. He can be a monster rebounder when fully engaged. Poythress has also hit some shots at critical points in recent games.

FUTURE? Twenty-five percent he opts for the NBA Draft. Poythress could probably play professionally somewhere next season, but he won’t make an NBA roster unless he improves his perimeter game and gives a more consistent effort. He has shown flashes of leadership ability this season, and that could be invaluable next season if he returns to UK.

WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN — Grade: B (6.8 ppg., 6.1 rpg.). The 7-foot Cauley-Stein, a sophomore, was showing signs this postseason of coming out of a late-regular season funk until he badly injured an ankle early in Friday’s game against Louisville.

FUTURE? That injury, that some have suggested is a stress fracture, makes Cauley-Stein’s immediate future fascinating. I’d say it’s 60-40 he opts for the NBA. But how high will NBA scouts weigh Cauley-Stein’s incredible shot-blocking ability and rebounding prowess, versus his lack of physicality and inconsistent effort?

MARCUS LEE — Grade: B+. (2.4 ppg., 1.5 rpg.) The over-the-top production (10 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots) Sunday in 15 minutes against Michigan shows that the 6-9 Lee should have been playing more all along.

FUTURE? I highly doubt Lee will put his name in the NBA Draft this spring. Make it 10 percent. I’m hoping he returns to UK. His potential is through the roof. But, you have to play him.

DOMINIQUE HAWKINS — Grade: B+. Obviously, Hawkins, a freshman guard, will be back in college next season. But if the Harrison twins return to Kentucky, and backcourt recruits Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker arrive on campus, I wonder if Hawkins will return, too.

Every college team could use a savvy defender like Hawkins. And my bet is, in another year or two, his offensive game will greatly improve. He just needs the confidence that comes with more playing time.

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