If Dick Vitale is to be believed, the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball will be on display Saturday at Mizzou Arena.
Vitale told USA Today before the season that the Wildcats’ eight-player freshman class, which includes six McDonald’s All-Americans, was “the best class ever assembled.”
Missouri coach Frank Haith was hard-pressed to disagree.
“Go back to the Fab Five maybe?” Haith said, referring to Michigan’s vaunted 1991 recruiting class. “I don’t know. They’re really good. I saw all these kids in high school and they’re very talented. They’re worthy of the praise.”
All the same, Missouri, 16-4, will try to extend its win streak in SEC play to three games at noon against Kentucky, 15-5, in a game that will be televised on CBS.
“I haven’t heard ‘the greatest freshmen class ever,’ but they are definitely a great group of freshmen and deserve the respect they’re getting,” said Tigers junior Jabari Brown, who leads the SEC in scoring (19.8) and has reached at least 20 points in five straight games. “We’re looking forward to beating them, though.”
Brash? Perhaps, but Missouri isn’t going to be intimidated just because Kentucky’s roster is packed with five-star recruits.
“Coach Cal always is bringing in top-talent guys all around the country,” Tigers senior Earnest Ross said. “So, it’s us just going out there focused on our game and not really worried about what they’re coming to us with.”
Haith said Calipari probably doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done luring top high school prospects to Lexington, Ky.
“What he does is extremely hard to do and he’s done it extremely well,” Haith said. “He’s won a national championship there doing it the way he does it, getting those guys and getting them to play a certain way. You’re massaging egos and all that stuff. He is to be commended.”
Still, as the Wildcats’ five losses — including two in conference at Arkansas and LSU — prove, talent alone isn’t enough to ensure victory, because there’s simply no doubting the talent.
The top player in the class, Julius Randle, is a double-double machine with 11 on the season. He averages 16.1 points and 10.2 rebounds.
“He’s a load,” Haith said. “He does so many things and plays with such high energy. For a young kid, he’s put together.
“When you have his girth and his athletic ability, his size and then you add on top of that his intangible of how hard he plays, it makes him very difficult.”
Meanwhile, twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison have combined for 24.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, while James Young chips in 14.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Those four freshmen are expected to start along with 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who graduated from Olathe Northwest.
Cauley-Stein and fellow sophomore Alex Poythress are the reason Dakari Johnson, a 7-footer who was regarded as the nation’s best high school center last season, averages only 4.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 11 minutes per game.
Of course, that’s more minutes than Marcus Lee (7.1), who was a consensus top-20 player coming out of high school.
“I’ve been playing (against) them since I was in like third or fourth grade, for a long time,” said Missouri’s freshman starter, Johnathan Williams III. “We kind of grew up around each other and know each other a lot. … They’re a great team and it should be a fun challenge.”
Of course, Missouri likes to think it presents a substantial challenge for a young Kentucky team, too.
“I came here to play against the best competition and bigger schools,” junior Jordan Clarkson said. “They’re considered one of the best programs in the country, so this is what I came here for — to play in games like these.”