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Just when it looked like Coach Cal's impressive streak of top-ranked recruiting classes was coming to an end -- it has to at some point, right? -- Kentucky's head coach put together yet another one of the top signing classes in the country.
Touted as one of top two or three recruiting classes so far, John Calipari announced four players for his 2014 class during the early signing period on Thursday. Trey Lyles (Indianapolis), Karl Towns (Metuchen, N.J.), Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss.) and Tyler Ulis (Chicago Heights, Ill.) have all signed national letters of intent to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, starting in the 2014-15 season.
All four players in the signing class are regarded as consensus top-40 players, and two of them are rated in the major recruiting services' top 15.
"I'm really proud of this group as far as where they are academically, what type of people they are and their basketball ability," Coach Cal said. "All four of these guys are skilled for their position and they have the ability to score. We're happy to announce they will be joining us next fall."
With a handful of the nation's top recruits still undecided and the spring signing period still to go, it remains to be seen whether Calipari will have the top class for a fifth straight season, according to Rivals. But with yet another collection of talented kids, never count Coach Cal out.
Check below for a recap of each player, including a bio blast, quote from Cal and video highlights.
- 6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward from Indianapolis
- Ranked No. 7 overall by ESPN and No. 8 by Rivals and Scout
- Tabbed No. 1 power forward by Scout and No. 2 by ESPN
- Averaged 17.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks as a junior at Indianapolis Arsenal Technical High School
- Two-time Indianapolis City Player of the Year (2012-13)
- Averaged 20.3 points for Team Canada in the 2013 U19 World Championships
- Verbally committed Nov. 5, his 18th birthday
- Twitter: @TreyMambaLyles
Why Lyles chose the Cats"Just because of Coach Cal's record with players like me, what he's able to do with guys such as myself, and just really getting us to the stage that we want to be at, which is for me the NBA. I want to be an all-star, and he's had a lot of guys that have been able to step up to that stage and become all-stars in the NBA. His overall pitch to me was just perfect. I think it's going to be the best situation for myself."
"DeMarcus Cousins is out there getting 30 and 15, so that's definitely something I want to be. Julius (Randle), he's just a man-child out there. He has a chance of going No. 1. That just gives them extra points for me, guys at my position that (Calipari has) developed and got into the NBA."
Cal says"At 6-10, Trey can play both inside and outside. He has the skills to score in both areas. He's seen what some of our former guys are doing in the pros right now and has said he wants to follow in their path. My hope is he's our next beast."
What they're saying about Lyles
- 7-foot, 235-pound forward from Metuchen, N.J.
- Ranked No. 6 overall by ESPN and No. 11 by Rivals and Scout
- Tabbed No. 3 center by Rivals and ESPN and No. 4 by Scout
- Averaged 21.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.6 blocks last season for St. Joseph's
- New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012-13
- Tabbed New Jersey's top player by The Star-Ledger
- Led St. Joseph's to back-to-back state championships
- Played the last two summers with the Dominican Republic National Team, the first summer under Coach Cal and this past summer under assistant coach Orlando Antigua
- First commit of the 2012 class
- Verbally committed Dec. 4, 2012
- Twitter: @KATis32
Why Towns chose the Cats"Kentucky is just such a great school. They're just such a powerhouse in basketball and at the same time they're such a great academic school. I just felt that Kentucky was the best choice."
"For me, being with Coach John Calipari on the Dominican team, he never asked about time or about how many shots to take or anything. He just expected me to compete at the highest level every day and just make sure that I played not just for him, not for anyone, but my family and my country. I really respected that a lot out of him."
Cal says"Karl, at 7 feet tall, brings great versatility. He can obviously score it inside, but his ability to shoot and handle it like he's a guard will spread defenses out. His growth from his first stint with the Dominican team until now has been unbelievable, and I'm looking forward to working with him on the collegiate level."
What they're saying about Towns"A personable big man with big skills, Towns has great hands, soft touch and is comfortable using either hand around the rim. He has good ball skills and range on his jumper but sometimes roams the perimeter a bit too much. An above average rebounder when he plays in the lane." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
- 6-5, 185-pound shooting guard out of Moss Point, Miss.
- Ranked No. 18 overall by ESPN, No. 30 by Rivals and No. 31 Scout
- Rated the No. 3 shooting guard by ESPN and the No. 5 by Scout
- 2012-13 Mississippi Gatorade State Player of the Year
- Averaged 29.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2012-13
- Tabbed Sun Herald Player of the Year last season
- Verbally committed Oct. 31.
- Twitter: @DevinBook
Why Booker chose the Cats"I felt like Kentucky's worst situation would be better than a lot of better situations at other schools." -- via Evan Daniels of Scout.com
"It's a lot of what everyone is doing nowadays. Going in kind of as a package. I want to be around people I'm comfortable with, people I've hung out with and people I keep in contact with. ... It was mainly my decision, but Tyler and I have been talking about going to college together since our first camp, the Elite 100. Right then I was like 'wow' I wanted to play on the same team as Tyler." - via Evan Daniels, Scout.com
Cal says"Devin is a scoring machine. At nearly 6-6, he can play three different positions. He's got great range, which should help us spread the floor when he's playing. What I like most about him is his confidence in his ability and his desire to compete with the best."
What they're saying about Booker
- 5-8, 150-pound point guard from Chicago Heights, Ill.
- Ranked 29th nationally by Scout and 33rd by both Rivals and ESPN
- Tabbed the No. 4 point guard in the country by ESPN and No. 6 by Scout
- Averaged 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals as a junior at Marian Catholic High School
- Named the Time Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year
- Guided his team to a team-record 29 wins last year and the program's first sectional title
- Owns his school's single-season and career record for points
- Verbally committed Sept. 13
- Twitter: @tulis3
Why Ulis chose the Cats"Kentucky is the biggest stage in college basketball. I like how Coach Cal produces point guards and sends guys to the pros and wins games."
"I like Coach Cal. He's straightforward with everything. He just tells you the truth. He says if you're not built for this you can't come here. If you're not ready for the spotlight, the competition, and if you play bad, the criticism, you can't play here."
Cal says"Tyler is the ultimate competitor. His heart and his ability to make people better set him apart from his peers. He can score in bunches, and like every point guard I've had, he brings a little something different to the table."
What they're saying about Ulis
With the youth of the Wildcats and uncertainty with which they would enter the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Coach Cal narrowed the possible outcomes into two: winning or learning.
There will come a time when the Cats come to realize how much can be taken away from their loss to the Spartans, but that time wasn't in the locker room following the 78-74 defeat.
"You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Calipari said. "That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana (two years ago). So you had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that."
Alex Poythress was ready to start the learning process a few minutes later as he took the podium for UK's postgame press conference.
"We learned a lot about who's fighting and who can keep it going," Poythress said. "When the going gets rough, we just keep going."
The Cats have every reason to take pride in that fact.
The experienced Spartans did to Kentucky what Calipari feared they would, taking advantage as the five freshmen and two sophomores who comprise his rotation acted their age. Within 3:11, the Spartans were up 10-0 on the strength of UK's sloppiness with the ball.
"They had never been in an environment like this, one," Calipari said. "And two, when guys get that, that get into themselves a little bit. It's natural. So now everybody is trying to do their thing and it looks discombobulated and that's what it was and that's what I expected."
UK treaded water for the remainder of the first -- largely thanks James Young, who scored 15 of his 19 before the break -- and trailed 42-30 at the end of the half. It was then Calipari drew up a new game plan on the fly and moved Julius Randle from the perimeter to the post and essentially scrapped his Dribble Drive offense.
"Well, we just said at this point, the only time they're stopping him is when you hold the ball," Calipari said. "So quit holding the ball. Just take it to the lane and ball fake and shoot it over 'em and if you miss it we'll send everybody to the glass. That was our offense: Throw it up and go rebound it."
Randle struggled in the first half, left frustrated by a packed-in Spartan defense as his drives and spin moves were repeatedly thwarted. The second was a different story, as Randle -- whom Calipari termed a "fighter" after the freshman's third double-double in as many games -- scored six points within the first two minutes.
"He's a great player," said Poythress, who was a Calipari-described "beast" with his seven points and 12 rebounds. "When he gets it going we look for him and he just gets it going."
Randle would go on to score 23 of his game-high 27 points -- including two free throws that briefly tied the game at 66 with 4:48 left, to which the Spartans responded with a swift 5-0 run -- after halftime. He drew multiple defenders on every touch, but never relented.
"What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes."
As the final seconds ticked down on the comeback effort, Randle was clearly exhausted. He still managed to score UK's final basket with 42 seconds left to cut Michigan State's lead to two points, but had to excuse himself from postgame interviews due to muscle cramps.
As Randle got treatment on those cramps, Michigan State's last possession was probably running through his mind. Opting not to foul with five seconds differential between shot and game clock, UK forced a Denzel Valentine miss, but Branden Dawson was there on the weak side for an easy put-back to clinch a win and end talk of a 40-0 UK season.
If not for 16 missed free throws in 36 attempts for the Cats, the conversation would likely have continued. The Cats still believe they will be a good foul shooting team, but Calipari says it's time for them to take ownership in that area.
"My hope is I'm the office at night and it's 10:30 and they walked 15 steps across the street to go into the practice facility and I see guys shooting them on their own," Calipari said. "That's my hope. But we'll see because they've gotta take it on."
After the game, Calipari said he had "no idea" how UK was able to stay within four points of a team as talented and experienced as Michigan State shooting 55.6 from the free-throw line and committing 17 turnovers. The answer came in the way the Cats rebounded.
With Randle and Poythress tirelessly attacking the glass, UK outrebounded Michigan State 44-32 and had 24 second-chance points. Considering the Spartans had 66 rebounds in their season opener, that's impressive. Considering the history Izzo's teams have of dominating on the glass, that's borderline unbelievable.
"They beat us in what we do well," Izzo said.
The way these two physical teams traded blows in the United Center, fans and media alike -- though it's only November, as Calipari often repeats -- wondered whether the matchup could be reprised down the road.
"Well, I hope we do because it probably means we'd both be playing in April," Calipari said. "So let's hope we do play. I hate to play friends. I really don't like playing friends, but if it's in April I'm fine playing whoever we're playing at that point."
For UK to reach that point, Calipari knows there's much work ahead. He anticipated his team wouldn't be ready for a stage this big at the tip, but they were much closer when the final buzzer sounded.
"I knew this would get their attention in the first half," Calipari said. "The biggest thing is if you don't do this together you will not win. You'll never be a special team, so you've got to truly do this together and that's both on defense and offense."
For more from UK's shootaround in the United Center, check out this photo gallery from Chet White.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 10:
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
- Recorded a double-double in both of UK's victories.
- Scored 45 points in two games, more than any other UK freshman in his first two games under John Calipari. The previous high was John Wall in 2009-10 who totaled 40 in his first two outings.
- Is the first Wildcat to have consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games since Patrick Patterson in Dec. 2008.
- Sunk 10 or more free throws in both contests, the 11 made vs. UNC Asheville ranks the as the second-most in a single game under Calipari.
- His 23-point, 16-rebound effort was just two points and one rebound shy of matching UK first-game records in both statistical categories. Terrence Jones had 25 points in his collegiate debut, while Sam Bowie hauled in 17 rebounds.
- His three assists against Northern Kentucky was a team-high.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson simply had a match for the ages in a five-set victory over LSU on Sunday. Thomasson set a 25-point rally scoring era and Craig Skinner tenure record with a 30-kill performance in the win. She totaled the 30 hammers on an impressive .373 hitting percentage. She countered it with a career-high 22 digs to provide a defensive spark as well. No UK player under Skinner has ever turned a 30-20 trick, and she is the first conference player to do so since Kayla Fitterer of Alabama achieved the feat in 2010. The last UK player to record 30 kills in a match was a senior, Sarah Spinner, with 36 in 2004. Thomasson was also perfect in the serve-receive line with 29 total attempts and zero errors. She received the final serve from LSU and won the match for UK with her 30th kill down the line. She opened the weekend with a12-kill performance against South Carolina. In all, Thomasson has now reached the double-figure kill plateau in four-straight conference matches. For the weekend, she averaged a blistering 5.25 kills per set on a .341 hitting percentage. She also contributed 3.12 digs per stanza a squad-high 5.56 points.
For the first time in five years, the nation's two top-ranked teams will meet. The lights will be bright for Tuesday's matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State and it's a stage for which Coach Cal is not sure his team is ready.
But as much as Coach Cal might like to have a little more time to prepare his young team for such a tough opponent, he knows there are positives that come with playing in the Champions Classic so early.
"The thing in a game like this for this team: Questions are answered," Calipari said.
The one question about UK that needs no answering is whether the Wildcats are talented. With potential lottery picks up and down the Kentucky roster, that's clear and was made even clearer in UK's two exhibition wins.
On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Chicago's United Center, more open-ended debates will be settled.
"So then the question's about how we play together, how hard we play, how we deal with adversity, how we deal with prosperity," Calipari said. "Questions will be answered tomorrow. You're playing against a well-coached team -- Tommy (Izzo) does a great job -- and a veteran team."
Calipari counts six freshmen and two sophomores among his eight-man rotation, while five upperclassmen played 10 minutes or more in Michigan State's dominant 98-56 season-opening win over McNeese State.
Leading the way are senior guard Keith Appling and classmate Adreian Payne, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound center. Gary Harris is just a sophomore, but the preseason Big 10 Player of the Year posted 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Spartans' opener.
"They're a terrific 3-point shooting team," Calipari said. "They've got big people. Their front line is as big as ours. You got to guard them. They run their stuff. They run their little back screens and they run their curl cuts and they get the ball from one side (to the other). Their pick-and-rolls are really effective, and their guards shoot it. So you can't go under pick-and-rolls. They'll come up shooting. We got a challenge on our hands."
It's a challenge the Wildcats are eager to take on.
They've heard all about the dynamic of youth vs. experience, including from their own coach, and are ready to prove it's just talk.
"I'm not buying into it," said Julius Randle, the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. "We're playing the same game. Two great coaches. We have guys on our team with experience too and I'm not buying into the lack of experience. At the end of the day, it's going to be a war."
In preparation for that battle, Calipari isn't asking his team to memorize Michigan State's playbook and personnel. In fact, he only gave the Cats about 10 minutes of video of the Spartans to watch on their team-issued tablets.
"I'm concerned about us," Calipari said. "I've watched enough tape."
Keeping it simple, he believes, is the best way he knows to position his team to pull off a victory in the early season's marquee game.
"Whatever we have in, which isn't much, just do well with what we have," Calipari said. "And let's worry about us, knowing that you're gonna have to guard. You have to run back, first, and then you have to guard them."
Against this Michigan State team, transition play will likely be of particular importance. While the Spartans generated much of their offense in the half-court through big man Derrick Nicks last year, they now look to run at every juncture and scored 40 fast-break points in their opener.
"They fly up and down the court," Calipari said. "And the guys that are out ahead can make plays."
With such a stern test ahead, Coach Cal sees two possible outcomes for his team.
"We win or we learn," Calipari said. "That's what this game will be. We win or we learn. What I think is we don't play hard enough."
The Cats, on the other hand, don't see why they can't do both, viewing their coach's talk about the early-season matchup being "unfair" as a challenge to his young team.
"I think we can win and I think we can learn about how good we can be," Randle said.
That also happens to be Calipari's ideal outcome.
"My hope is we play great, that you watch us and say, 'Man, (after) 30 practices, for them to play that way, wow," Calipari said. " 'They played hard, they played as a unit. Eh, they break down but they scrambled; they didn't stop playing, they had a great presence, great spirit about 'em.' And then we move on."
He's also prepared for the alternative, but the Cats will go back to work just the same.
"If that's a loss -- I'd like it to be a win, but if it's a loss and I get that from this team -- it's the building point that we go from," Calipari said.
Two dominant regular-season games in, Julius Randle was asked whether he could have imagined a better start to his collegiate career.
After posting a second straight double-double in a 93-63 win over Northern Kentucky on Sunday, Randle smiled and took a moment to decide how to answer.
"If you say so," Randle said.
For anyone not wearing his No. 30 jersey or his coach's loafers, the answer would surely be a resounding no. To say anything else after he posted 22 points and 14 rebounds against the Norse to follow a 23-point, 16-rebound effort in the season opener would be crazy, right?
Could he have expected something more than scoring the most points through two games of any UK freshman under John Calipari, breaking John Wall's previous record of 40? Could he have thought he could do better becoming the first freshman since Michael Beasley six years ago to 20-point, 10-rebound games in each of his first two games?
To get this straight, Randle is averaging 22.5 points and 15.0 rebounds through two games. He's shooting 60 percent from the field and nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line. He also offers the following appraisal of his performance to date.
"I'm still missing a lot of opportunities," Randle said. "A lot of balls I should come up with. I think I missed like four free throws today (he shot 10 for 14), so I'm still leaving a lot out there. I've just gotta learn from it and improve."
Randle has always had a reputation for demanding the best of himself, but his pursuit of perfection has been cranked up a notch since he put on Kentucky blue. That surely has something to do with Calipari.
"He should be averaging 20 rebounds a game right now I would say," Coach Cal said.
At one point during the first half when Randle was on the bench for a breather, Alex Poythress grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it back in, causing Calipari to turn and say something to his star freshman.
"He was just challenging me saying that's gotta be me on the offensive glass like that," Randle said. "I've gotta accept the challenge and keep going."
It's both a sign of how well Poythress is playing -- he had nine points and seven rebounds in just 20 minutes -- and of how good Calipari believes Randle can be that he would issue such a challenge. If Randle is able to do what Coach Cal believes he can, the college basketball world better watch out because he's pretty good already.
"He's playing very well," said Andrew Harrison, who scored 13 points. "I knew how good he was. He's a hard worker too. There's nothing he can be but good."
Harrison has never experienced playing college basketball without Randle, but Willie Cauley-Stein has. The perspective of playing his freshman year with no presence like the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Calipari-described "alpha beast" alongside him in the post makes Cauley-Stein realize how fortunate UK is to have Randle.
"It's fun," said the 7-foot sophomore who had seven points and 11 rebounds on Sunday. "If all else fails, you can just throw him the ball and he's going to make something happen. He's a great teammate to have on your team because you know he's always going to make a play. He's pretty good."
The only time on Sunday NKU was able to slow Randle was when he took an inadvertent poke to the eye during the first half. The play sent him to the bench less than three minutes into the game, but not for long.
"I couldn't see for a little bit, but I'm good now," Randle said.
Always asking for more, Calipari even used Randle's brief exit as a teachable moment.
"He stops out there," Calipari said, referencing Randle's unwillingness to leave the game regardless how tired he may be, "and he finally took himself out for the first time this season. He took himself out. The only way he came out was the guy almost poked his eye out, so had he to come out. You can't play at the pace we play and stay in there for 15 minutes. You just can't do it."
If Randle weren't the way he is, he might view Calipari's coaching as nitpicking. Instead, he understands his coach is only trying to make him better.
With that in mind, Randle is going to strive to meet those high standards even though he knows Coach Cal will only raise the bar if he reaches them.
"I'll try to (get 20 rebounds)," Randle said. "But if I get 20, he's going to ask for 25. I'm just out there trying my best and trying to get better."