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Kentucky's 5-star recruits recognize pressure on program next year: 'We're not losing in the first round'

HOUSTON — Each year, John Calipari and Kentucky land five-star, one-and-done prospects. Kentucky has become a springboard to the NBA since 2012, when Anthony Davis helped lead Kentucky to a national championship and was the No. 1 pick in the draft. Since then, Kentucky has had 11 top-3 recruiting classes led by elite high school prospects who have gone on to be great NBA players.

In the last nine NBA drafts, Kentucky has had 14 players selected in the first round, and there are currently 28 former Wildcats in the NBA or G League — Kentucky has the most active NBA players, with Duke second (24) and UCLA third (15). This year, Calipari will likely return to the NBA Draft green room with freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham projected to go in the lottery.

Next season will be no different. Calipari has the No. 2 recruiting class coming in with four five-star recruits: Boogie Fland, Karter Knox, Jayden Quaintance and Billy Richmond. Fland, Knox and Quaintance were named McDonald's All Americans and will be playing in the all-star game Tuesday night. This is nothing new for Big Blue Nation. There have been 14 Kentucky players in the last five McDoanld's All American games.

But after a disappointing ending to the 2023-24 season and a shocking exit in the NCAA tournament in the first round, there is mounting pressure on this group coming in next season. They recognize something needs to change for Kentucky fans to regain trust in their head coach, who has gone 1-4 in his last five NCAA tournament games and hasn't reached the Final Four since 2015.

"There's always pressure coming into a new situation, but we all definitely feel it after how this season ended," Fland told Yahoo Sports. "We have to go in there with the mindset that we're not freshmen. The big thing for us is we need to make it about the team's success first. We all want to reach that next level and make the NBA. The key is to not skip steps and really buy into what coach Cal says and do whatever is necessary to win."

Seven months from their first collegiate game, the sentiment of changing the narrative around Kentucky is ringing through loud and clear for the players coming in.

"We have something to prove next season," Knox told Yahoo Sports. "We know we have to get in the gym and put in the work, not just individually but together. We're not losing in the first round next season."

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart confirmed Calipari would be returning for a 16th season, and Calipari said on his weekly radio show that he promises to make changes and get back to Final Four runs and championship pursuits.

“That is a commitment that I give to the fans,” Calipari said. “Now let’s come together and let’s go do something special. We can do it. We’ve done it. Let’s do it again.”

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 21: head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Reed Sheppard #15 and Rob Dillingham #0 in the first half of the game against the Oakland Golden Grizzlies during the first round of the 2024 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at PPG PAINTS Arena on March 21, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Kentucky's John Calipari will likely lose freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham to the NBA Draft this year. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Justin K. Aller via Getty Images)

Calipari has said numerous times that he finds the most success when he has a mixture of young, one-and-done talent and older experienced players. With the fifth-year senior option due to COVID-19, some players can play in college until they're 24 or 25 years old. The difference in physicality and pace in the college game between veteran opponents and Calipari's star freshmen has been particularly felt on the defensive side. In the loss to Oakland, Kentucky guards chased Jack Gohlke, 24, all over the court. The bigs never bumped him coming off screens or hedged to slow him down. Even though Gohlke attempted only eight shots inside the arc all season with 347 attempted 3s, Kentucky still let him get looks from deep as he knocked down 10 3s in the upset win.

"The coaching staff has really emphasized defense coming in next year," Knox said. "They know I can score the ball, hit 3s and get to the rim, but they're just telling me I need to keep grinding and staying in the gym."

Quaintance reclassed up a grade and will have to spend two seasons at Kentucky before he’s eligible for the NBA Draft. At just 16 years old (turning 17 in July), he’s the youngest McDonald’s All American in the history of the game.

“I can’t be a one-and-done so I’m going to be there for the long haul,” Quaintance told Yahoo Sports. “I know I’m going to have to work hard to earn minutes next season, but I’m 6-foot-9 with a 7-3 wingspan and I really think I can bring some length and versatility, especially on the defensive side.”

Kentucky is most likely losing Dillingham and Sheppard to the NBA Draft and will also lose fifth-year seniors Tre Mitchell and Antonio Reeves. D.J. Wagner, Justin Edwards and Aaron Bradshaw will likely test the waters and receive feedback from NBA teams before any decisions are made. Calipari and his staff have had success in the transfer portal but will need to know how their roster is shaping up before they can start recruiting players.

Whatever next year holds, the incoming freshmen know what is at stake next season.

“We know we have a target on our backs, and I understand the pressure coming in,” Quaintance said. “We’re ready to fight every game and prove why Kentucky is one of the best teams and programs in college basketball.”