Wildcats must decide

Staff WriterApril 24, 2011 

When North Carolina visits Kentucky on Dec. 3 early next basketball season, the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 polls could be at stake in a game serving as a possible preview of the NCAA championship game in New Orleans.

The Tar Heels' personnel situation came into complete focus with recent announcements by Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes that they will skip the June 23 NBA Draft and stay in school.

Kentucky's prospects remain fuzzy, though.

Three Wildcats underclassmen - point guard Brandon Knight, forward Terrence Jones and wingman DeAndre Liggins - have declared for the draft but will not hire agents, allowing them to withdraw by May 8 and retain their college eligibility.

The deadline for non-seniors to declare is today, but two other Kentucky standouts - freshman Doron Lamb and junior Darius Miller - have indicated already that they will be back in school.

By amusing coincidence, the NBA Draft will be held in the Newark (N.J.) Prudential Center, where Kentucky defeated UNC 76-69 in last month's NCAA East Regional final.

The Wildcats started only one senior (center Josh Harrellson) last season and will join the Tar Heels as primary contenders for No. 1 if Knight, Jones and Liggins return.

Knight, the East Regional's most outstanding player as a freshman, is widely projected as a top-10 draft pick.

Most of the NBA mock drafts list Arizona forward Derrick Williams, Duke guard Kyrie Irving and Connecticut guard Kemba Walker as the top three college prospects. But Knight and Colorado guard Alec Burks are seen as close contenders.

Knight led the Wildcats in scoring at 17.3 points a game, and 6-foot-8 Jones, a quick freshman, averaged 15.7 points and a team-best 8.8 rebounds. Lamb averaged 12.3 points and Miller 10.9.

Jones' draft projection is for the middle of the first round, but Liggins, a junior, is not considered a first-round lock.

An unknown factor for all of the underclassmen is the status of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement with the players. The agreement ends June 30, and unless a new contract can be reached before the start of the season, a play stoppage is likely. First-round picks in the June draft could be signed by NBA teams, but players draw paychecks only if games are played.

"A lockout would probably change the way a lot of [college] guys approach the draft," Kentucky coach John Calipari said during the NCAA tournament. "There's no way for them - or anyone else - to know if there's going to be a season next year. It's a guessing game either way."

With or without Knight, Liggins and Jones, the Wildcats will have lots of talent as usual.

Three of Calipari's incoming freshmen - guard Marquis Teague and forwards Michael Gilchrist and Anthony Davis - are expected to stand out immediately. A fourth, forward Kyle Wiltjer, also is likely to compete for playing time.

This is not the first time Calipari has reloaded quickly at Kentucky.

After the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats lost freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton to the pros and still reached the Final Four, losing by one point to eventual champion Connecticut.

UNC and Kentucky hardly can count on a two-team race, of course.

Duke will have to replace Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler in addition to Irving, but the Blue Devils will still be plenty good. So will Ohio State, Syracuse, UCLA and Kansas, among many others.

But if May 9 dawns with Jones, Liggins and Knight still in Kentucky's stable, the Nos. 1 and 2 preseason picks are all but set.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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