Early this month, after Kentucky coach Tubby Smith spent yet
another dinner with friends despairing about his team's
second-round loss to UAB in the NCAA tournament, his wife, Donna,
told him to get over it already. It was time to look toward the
future, one that now includes three McDonald's All-Americans,
whom Smith bagged during the spring signing period. That haul was
astounding in an era when most elite high school seniors ink
their letters of intent during the fall signing period. Of
recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons's top 100 players, for example, 88
committed last fall.
The jewel of the nation's top recruiting class is 7-foot center
Randolph Morris, who nearly entered the NBA draft before choosing
Kentucky over Georgia Tech. (Morris, however, didn't endear
himself to Wildcats fans by saying he chose Kentucky in part
because the school isn't as rigorous academically as Georgia
Tech.) "Randolph needs to trim down a little bit, but he's got
great hands and footwork," Smith says.
Smith's biggest needs, though, were in the backcourt, where he
lost guards Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch, the 'Cats' top scorer
in 2003-04. Among the players filling those voids will be the
other two spring signees, 6'4" Joe Crawford and 6'1" Rajon Rondo,
who will vie for starting jobs with 6'1" Ramel Bradley, a fall
signee, and sharpshooting Patrick Sparks, who sat out last season
after transferring from Western Kentucky.
The signing of Rondo was especially sweet for Wildcats fans
because the point guard had originally wanted to play for
Louisville. The first choice of Cardinals coach Rick Pitino,
though, was point guard Sebastian Telfair, who signed with
Louisville in the fall but entered the NBA draft on May 6. Pitino
unsuccessfully tried to persuade Rondo to wait out Telfair's
decision before committing to Kentucky and remains skeptical that
Rondo made the right choice, citing a possible Wildcats logjam at
Smith isn't concerned about chemistry problems. "We don't have a
star system," he says. "I don't worry about keeping those guys
happy. It's their job to keep me happy."
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY HADERTHAUER/ICON SMI (TOP) Sharpshooting Crawford is part of UK's new guard.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN
The Other Big Winners
These schools fared well too, either in spring signings or in
holding on to players who could've jumped to the NBA.
TEXAS Even without 7-footer LaMarcus Aldridge, who declared for
the draft (but didn't hire an agent), the Longhorns have the
nation's No. 2 recruiting class.
OREGON Forward Malik Hairston appeared headed elsewhere before
the Ducks swooped in at the eleventh hour and pulled off the
surprise signing of the spring.
SYRACUSE Forward Hakim Warrick might have been a mid-first-round
NBA pick but chose to return for his senior season.
CONNECTICUT The Huskies lost Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor to the
draft, but 6'8'' signee Rudy Gay (left) joins Josh Boone and
Charlie Villanueva to form a lethal frontcourt.
NOTRE DAME Senior-to-be Chris Thomas didn't test the draft waters
and should be the nation's top point guard in 2004-05.