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Kentucky Awaits Next Wave

A little more than a year ago, six high school seniors sat in a Chicago hotel room and talked about expectations.

One by one, they spoke of a season full of victories — a season that would culminate in a national championship. A couple of them, unprompted, even talked about the possibility of a perfect, 40-0 record.

The wins didn’t come as easy as they expected, but those six players are now two victories away from achieving their ultimate goal. A little more than a year ago, it seemed almost inevitable. A little more than a month ago, it seemed nearly impossible.

Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee have fought their way through youth and indecision — maybe even a little sense of entitlement — over these past few months.

As they played, four other high school seniors learned about the danger that comes with high expectations.

Karl Towns Jr., Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are the next wave of McDonald’s All-Americans coming to Kentucky. They’ve spent this past season watching how hard it’s going to be.

On Tuesday, those four players stood a couple of miles from where their predecessors spoke of 40-0 and talked about the expectations that come with being the next big thing in Kentucky basketball.

“We’re just taking it one step at a time,” Ulis said. “We’re trying to get there, get situated, get our stuff together and get ready for school. It’s going to be tough. Obviously, it’s not easy — if you see what happened at the beginning of this season. It’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. We just have to come out ready to play and stick with it, work hard and play together.”

Kentucky’s signees wouldn’t make any concrete promises as far as wins and losses. But they all understood why last year’s McDonald’s All-Americans said what they did.

Towns specifically said his expectation next season is to win a national championship, and he made that clear with no apologies or reservations. “That should be my expectations,” he said. “If I expect anything less, then I would be letting down Big Blue Nation.”

The 7-footer from New Jersey promised to play every game to “the last dribble,” but he never said anything about an undefeated season. Still, he respects Randle, the Harrisons and the other freshmen for talking openly about it.

Booker looked a few months into the past and saw a group of budding stars who maybe fell a little too deep into the hype. He doesn’t think the expectations that team shouldered were fair, and he extended that thought to the other star players in that recruiting class.

Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins played most of the season as an 18-year-old, but he arrived in Lawrence being hailed as the next Michael Jordan by some who’d never even seen him play. Wiggins didn’t have the team expectations that the UK kids did, but they were seemingly impossible expectations all the same.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” Booker said. “The same thing happened with Wiggins. He’s not the one that puts out the articles, or puts himself on Sports Illustrated. Obviously, he’s not going to turn opportunities like that down. But it’s a lot of pressure.”

Wiggins — all but called a bust by some a few games into his college career — might still be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft. And those Wildcats who pretty much everybody wrote off as disappointments a few weeks ago are still playing.

The journey for those six players didn’t go as planned, but the destination they all hoped to share remains a possibility.

If they get there, no one will remember 40-0. If those six freshmen are holding a trophy in Texas on Monday night, 30-10 will be just fine.

“I know they wanted to go 40-0,” Ulis said. “They probably believed they would, but they didn’t. But they’re still in the Final Four. Their record before, honestly, doesn’t really matter. They’re in the Final Four, probably going to win the next game. I believe they’re going to win and get the national championship.”