Another offseason of NBA talk begins for stunned Kentucky

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Another offseason of NBA talk begins for stunned Kentucky
Kansas State guard Barry Brown, Jr., celebrates during the second half of the team's 61-58 victory while Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander reacts during an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional semifinal early Friday, March 23, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari will take a few days before having a series of offseason meetings with his young team about their futures after an earlier-than-expected exit from the NCAA Tournament.

Calipari said he isn’t sure whether many of his talented freshmen and sophomores might return next season, or declare for the NBA draft.

“Until I sit down with all the guys, talk and see where they are with things and where their families are, I have no idea,” Calipari said.

They’re conversations Calipari knew were upcoming, just not this soon.

The fifth-seeded Wildcats could not take advantage of a clearer path to the Final Four paved by early round upsets of the South Region’s top four seeds. Kentucky fell 61-58 to No. 9 seed Kansas State in a Thursday night regional semifinal in Atlanta.

The disappointing season-ending defeat in which the Wildcats struggled to make shots typified the season for Calipari’s youngest group since his 2009 arrival in Lexington.

Kentucky (26-11) began the season ranked fifth in the Top 25 before dropping and eventually falling out. An up-and-down final month included four consecutive losses, the longest skid in Calipari’s nine-year tenure with the Wildcats.

They responded by playing some of their best basketball, winning four of their final five regular season games and rolling to a fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference Tournament championship as the No. 4 seed.

Kentucky’s quick improvement stoked hopes of a deep NCAA Tournament run and perhaps playing for a ninth national championship next weekend in San Antonio, Texas. That expectation will remain as long as Calipari continues recruiting highly touted prospects.

Despite the early tournament exit Calipari said he took satisfaction in getting the Wildcats to play their best in the postseason.

“Individually and collectively, this was a rewarding year for me,” Calipari said. “I wish it could have ended in another week, but for me to see how individual players got better, for me to see how this team came together, for me to see (forward) Jarred (Vanderbilt) in, Jarred out, all the stuff that went on with injuries, they hung in there and played a bunch of freshmen. I thought they really performed.”

Calipari now moves on to offseason discussions to see which freshmen return and to what extent he must retool — again.

Kevin Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer at 15.6 points per game, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are projected as first-round NBA draft choices and possible lottery selections. Forward PJ Washington has also generated first-round consideration.

Hamidou Diallo — a redshirt freshman guard who nearly entered last year’s draft pool despite not playing at Kentucky — improved his prospects in the tournament and has been mentioned as a first-round possibility. Jarred Vanderbilt made his Kentucky debut in January after missing 17 games with a left foot injury and showed promise as a rebounder, only to sustain an ankle injury that sidelined him for the postseason.

Sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones improved but could return along with guard Quade Green and forward Nick Richards. Freshman guard Jemarl Baker recently began working out after having left knee surgery last fall. Sophomore forward Tai Wynyard played sporadically before being suspended for the second half of the season.

As he routinely does, Calipari will encourage his entire roster to work out with NBA clubs to explore their options. Then the coach will explore his options.

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