It was a day Kentucky fans had been nervous about since the final buzzer sounded in Kentucky's 56-55 loss to Connecticut in the Final Four. Would then-freshman forward Terrence Jones return to UK or enter his name in the NBA Draft where he was a projected lottery pick by many scouts and analysts?
In the end, Jones tweeted out his love of the college life and his desire to hang an eighth banner in the rafters of hallowed Rupp Arena. If Kentucky is going to follow through on that, Jones will likely play a large role. The 6-foot-8 forward from Portland, Ore., said he needs to mature and be more focused on and off the court.
Jones did say he has had numerous people, including his family, ask him why he made the decision he did when many people believed he had an opportunity to be a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
"Really, I just felt it wasn't going to go anywhere," Jones said of his decision to leave the guaranteed contract on the table for another year in college. "And that'd I'd be able to hopefully make that jump whenever I do feel ready."
Jones' teammate, however, rising sophomore guard Doron Lamb, said he may have made a different decision had he been in his shoes.
"If I was him I would have left," Lamb said. "If they said I was going in the lottery. But that's him and he decided to stay so I think he'll be good next year for us."
Jones said it was a tough decision between coming back and going pro, but that he's struggled before in making those types of decisions, perhaps hinting at his struggle as a high school senior to pick a college. Ultimately, the decision to return to Kentucky was his own, and was one he said he'll have no regrets over -- whether his NBA stock rises in the future, or falls.
"I'd be very frustrated (if my stock fell), but I just feel it would be on me," Jones said. "For that to happen it would be because I did something wrong. I just feel I won't let that happen to myself."
Jones, who broke the UK single game freshman scoring record with 35 points against Auburn, said his goal is to become a top-three pick in the NBA Draft.
After averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman, Jones, and Lamb, who shot 48.6 percent from beyond the arc, will be two important pieces to the Final Four puzzle the Wildcats will be attempting to assemble in 2011-12. Lamb said coming up short by one point in last year's Final Four is still something he thinks about today.
"I think about that every day," Lamb said. "We were right there, national championship and we left it short by ... one point. But I hope this year we win the whole thing."
Returners excited about incoming freshman class
Each year, the long summer months that lie between the Final Four and Big Blue Madness seem like an eternity for the Big Blue faithful. For the summer of 2011, that sentiment has proven to be as true as the humid weather.
It's not just the fans that are ready to have the ball tipped at midcourt though; the players seem to be just as giddy. And now that the freshmen are in Lexington and the guys have gotten to play in a few pick-up games, it's obvious the returners from the Wildcats' 2011 Final Four run are just as excited to have the new guys in the gym.
"The minute they got here they were working out, shooting shots, making shots," Lamb said. "Mike (Gilchrist) is always running on the treadmill every day, working on his body. I think the freshmen are gym rats, really. It's good for us. If they keep doing that they can push us and we can push them back."
While many of Calipari's recruits in the first two years waited until close to the signing deadline, the freshman class of 2011 has been on board for awhile, signing in the fall of 2010. Because the current crop of Wildcats has known who their future teammates will be for so long, they've gotten to see each other, talk to each other and hang out with each other more than in previous years. That opportunity has perhaps put Kentucky ahead of the curve as far as camaraderie goes, rising senior Darius Miller says.
"They've been here a few times, we got to hang out with them a little bit and now we're getting to see them on the court a little bit when we play open gym, stuff like that," Miller said. "So, I feel like we've gotten kind of a head start with it."
Miller said they haven't gotten to play too much, but he's liked what he's seen so far.
"From what I've seen, everybody's really competitive, just like always, and everybody's a great teammate, just like last year and the year before that," Miller said. "I feel like we have a good team and I feel like we'll be able to compete this year."
With Brandon Knight gone, freshman guard Marquis Teague will look to fill the void as the leader of the offense. While Teague has a strong offensive game himself, Lamb said all he talks about is finding the right pass to make.
"All he talks about is throwing assists, really," Lamb said. "I never heard him say like, 'I'm going to score a lot this year.' He's always talking about throwing assists."
Lamb also said he sees what Calipari has talked about when he raves of the potential defensive ability of this team.
"I saw (our defensive potential) in pickup," Lamb said. "Anthony Davis was blocking a lot of shots and Mike Gilchrist, too."
Vargas gains valuable experience overseas
At this point, we all know the Josh Harrellson story. The then-senior forward sent an ill-advised tweet, was subsequently punished and then used the extra conditioning to his advantage, taking his game to new heights. In the end, Harrellson's tweet and its repercussions helped lead the Cats to their first Final Four appearance since 1998.
What is often left out of this bizarre, Hollywood-esque storyline is Harrellson's participation and play with the Reach USA summer basketball program. Harrellson starred overseas in China, leading the team in scoring (13.1), rebounding (9.2) and blocks (1.3).
This summer, rising senior forward Eloy Vargas played with the Reach USA crew and put together some impressive performances of his own in helping lead the team to a 6-2-1 record. The Moca, Dominican Republic native played in eight of Reach USA's nine games (he sat out the final game due to an illness) and averaged 10.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
"It gave me a lot of confidence playing like I want to play," Vargas said. "I know if I can play like that way over there, then I can play like that over here."
Miller, who played overseas one summer ago with USA in the World University Games, said he's seen a change in Vargas on the court and expects big things from the 6-11 forward in the upcoming season. Miller said Vargas is playing more aggressively now and seems more comfortable on the court.
"We expect a lot from him," Miller said. "The only thing he has to do is keep working. He's been working really hard. Like I said, everybody's picked up their intensity. I think it was because of the Final Four run we had and how close we were. He just needs to continue to work hard like he's doing, he's definitely improved, and we expect stuff from him."